On Christmas Eve in 2009, intelligence officials anxiously monitored dozens of al-Qaida members as they gathered for a meeting in southern Yemen. The U.S. and Yemen had stepped up airstrikes and raids the week before, and al-Qaida was regrouping under one roof to figure out how to retaliate.
With the right timing and a little luck, the U.S. could kill the group’s leadership in a single blow.
The predawn missile strike killed scores of suspected terrorists but missed Naser Al-Wahishi, the country’s top al-Qaida leader, as well as his deputy, Saeed Al-Shihri, and the radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
It was a close call, and its significance wasn’t lost on the terrorists.
Their e-mails had been compromised. Their cell phone conversations no longer were secure. This hadn’t been a chief concern for the al-Qaida affiliate operating in a Third World country with scattershot intelligence capabilities.
Suddenly al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was up against the National Security Agency and the Predator drones that can hover out of sight and intercept phone calls.
So it adapted.
It went underground, enduring a monthslong U.S. led bombing campaign. It emerged as a more disciplined and professional organization. It ditched cell phones in favor of walkie-talkies and coded names. Information was passed through intermediaries. If someone needed to send an email, it was shielded by highly sophisticated encryption software.
Those changes left al-Qaida in good position to thrive amid government upheaval in Yemen. The country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is an important U.S. ally but faces violent protests demanding his removal. The conflict has put CIA and military counterterrorism operations on ice, officials said, leading to fears that the increasingly sophisticated terrorist group will grow even stronger.
Current and former U.S. officials described al-Qaida’s response to U.S. strikes on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss operational activities. The Associated Press is withholding some details about the cat-and-mouse game between al-Qaida and the CIA because it could jeopardize operations.
The group’s ability to pivot quickly and seize the moment is not unprecedented. The Yemen offshoot of al-Qaida has shown itself repeatedly to be a nimble adversary, capable of staying one step ahead of well-funded U.S. intelligence agencies. Dating to the attack that nearly sunk the USS Cole in 2000 in Yemen’s Aden harbor, the group has shown that its operational capabilities are not static, its thinking not stale.
“Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has ironically proven to be better than either Yemen or the U.S. as a learning organization,” said Edmund J. Hull, author of the forthcoming book, “High-Value Target: Countering al Qaeda in Yemen.” Hull, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said the group “has consistently learned from its mistakes and adapted.”