A remote conference between more than 20 senior al Qaeda leaders that prompted temporary closures of several U.S. embassies in the Middle East earlier this month indicates that the terrorist organization remains committed to expansion and threatening the West, national security experts said Tuesday.
Daily Beast senior national security correspondent Eli Lake and Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) senior fellow Thomas Joscelyn said at an FDD panel discussion that al Qaeda has retained central management as its affiliates spring up across the Middle East and Africa.
Lake and fellow Daily Beast correspondent Josh Rogin reported Tuesday that the electronic conference between leaders of al Qaeda’s regional branches featured advanced encryption methods with video, voice, and chat capabilities.
In a web recording of the seven-hour meeting, which was seized from an al Qaeda courier captured by U.S. and Yemeni intelligence officials, al Qaeda network leader Ayman Al-Zawahri compared the United States’ regional position in the Middle East to the Soviet Union on the eve of its collapse in 1989.
Additionally, he exhorted participants in the conference to capitalize on America’s declining influence in the region before announcing that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), will be general manager of the group as it implements a new phase in al Qaeda’s war strategy.
President Barack Obama has repeatedly asserted that al Qaeda is "on the way to defeat" after drone strikes killed some of the group’s senior leaders.
"While there have been victories, the threat of al Qaeda is far from over at this point," Lake said.
Joscelyn said the proliferation of al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and other countries is not something the group "stumbled upon" but "has long been part of their strategy."
However, the group’s various regional branches have shifted their strategy in recent years to increase their effectiveness, Joscelyn noted. Affiliates like AQAP have adopted the "Hamas model" of providing governance and services to disaffected residents of Yemen.
Meanwhile, AQAP has continued to attempt terrorist attacks on the United States by planting underwear bombers on U.S.-bound airliners.
"They’re able to walk and chew gum at the same time," he said.
The Washington Free Beacon reported Tuesday that thousands of foreign jihadists—including Americans and Europeans—have flooded into civil war-torn Syria to join the al Qaeda-affiliated al Nusra Front, raising concerns among U.S. officials that these fighters will receive training for executing terrorist attacks upon return to their home countries.
Additionally, a report from the Long War Journal, a project of FDD, found that at least 15 Salafi jihadist groups—some affiliated with al Qaeda—have begun to occupy the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. The groups have reportedly attacked Israeli Defense Forces along Israel’s border and fired rockets into the country.
"It’s indisputable that [al Qaeda has] made more gains now than at any point in their history," Joscelyn said.
Lake said he fears that the military’s crackdown in Egypt and removal of Muslim Brotherhood leader and former President Mohamed Morsi, in addition to the radicalization of the Sinai Peninsula, will convince other members of the Muslim Brotherhood to disengage from politics and return to underground terrorist activities.
Lake said he remained hopeful that peaceful Muslims like the protesters in Egypt would reject the Islamist ideology, pointing to the necessity for groups such as AQAP to employ violent thugs to enforce sharia law.
Joscelyn countered that al Qaeda continues to achieve victories despite the rejection of jihad by younger generations of Muslims.
"They’re not just terrorists—they’re political revolutionaries—and they want power for themselves," he said.
As al Qaeda extends its reach, Lake said Obama risks reversing some of his successes such as the drone strikes and other covert operations by pulling out from the region too soon.
"President Obama talks like a comparative religion professor and acts like a Blackwater executive," Lake said, referring to one of the private security contractors used in Iraq.
"He’s done quite a bit in a lot of places, but he’s made it appear that the war is winding down. Will that translate into winding down these secret operations that he’s continued?"
Al Qaeda might have other ideas about whether the war against terrorists has concluded, Joscelyn said.
"The enemy gets a vote," he said.