The new video, which first appeared on jihadist websites, features a meeting led by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Al Qaida's number two leader, and the head of its affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. In the video, recorded somewhere in Yemen, al-Wuhayshi addresses more than 100 subordinates in the open, seemingly unconcerned about the threat of a U.S. drone strike.
U.S. officials believe the highly produced video is recent. With some fighters faces blurred, there is worry it signals a new round of plotting.
"The U.S. intelligence community should be surprised that such a large group of al Qaeda assembled together, including the leadership, and somehow they didn't notice," said Peter Bergen, CNN national security analyst.
There is good reason to worry.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, is considered the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate. The CIA and the Pentagon have repeatedly killed AQAP leaders with drone strikes. But the group is now emboldened.
In the video, al-Wuhayshi tells his followers that "we must eliminate the cross, and the bearer of that cross is America." AQAP has long sought to carry out attacks against CONUS targets and the group is believed responsible for several attempts, including the failed "underwear bomb" plot on a Delta airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
As Mr. Bergen notes, AQAP employs one of the most skilled bomb makers in the world of terrorism, Ibrahim al-Asiri. He was the reported architect of the underwear bomb and other devices which have escaped detection by security officials. Al-Asiri does not appear in the video, but remains a key asset for AQAP.
The fact that AQAP remains interested in attacking the U.S. is hardly news. The more disturbing aspect is that al-Wuhayshi was able to convene such a large gathering, with little fear of an American drone attack. In recent years, the U.S. military and the CIA have carried out dozens of drone strikes against AQAP figures in Yemen with notable successes, including the 2011 elimination of the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
How was AQAP able to avoid detection? The answer may lie with Edward Snowden and his revelations about NSA surveillance programs. Those disclosures, which helped the Washington Post and the UK Guardian win a recent Pulitzer Prize, provided a treasure trove of tradecraft information to our adversaries around the globe, including Al Qaida. The more you know about our collection techniques and capabilities, the easier it becomes to avoid detection.
In an interview with CNN, Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that recent leaks have affected our intel collection, but couldn't say if we had advance knowledge of the meeting in Yemen.
The answer to that question is a rather obvious "no." If we knew that al-Wuhayshi was holding such a large gathering, you'd hope that we could send a couple of Reapers and launch a little "Hellfire" party for that group. After all, the USAF sustains more than two dozen UAV orbits a day; many of those are in places like Afghanistan and Yemen, and our intel "haul" helps drive their positioning. Al-Wuhayshi appears very confident--some would say emboldened--in the video. Believing you've found a way to beat the drone threat would certainly do that.
We hope the folks at the Post and the Guardian enjoy their Pulitzer--with the understanding that such revelations come at a price.