Al-Qaida's Won This Round--So Far

Sara Sorcher

By now, it is common knowledge that Osama bin Laden used a network of couriers to maintain contacts with the world outside the former Qaida's chief's hideout. Bin Laden suspected the U.S. and its allies were watching and listening. He was right. It took years for Washington to trace bin Laden's most trusted courier to Abbottabad, Pakistan, which eventually resulted in the special-operations mission that killed the global terrorist leader in May 2011.

Has bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, learned anything? The senior Qaida leader discussed operational matters with the head of Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,The New York Times reported. Not only is it very unusual that a senior, Pakistan-based Qaida leader would discuss operational matters—including the timing for an attack—with affiliates, but U.S. officials were "stunned" the group spoke knowing the conversation would be picked up by intercepts, as ABC News reports.

Perhaps Zawahiri has learned a little too much. Now more than ever, with the recent National Security Agency online and phone surveillance disclosures published and debated widely, terrorists can know for sure that the U.S. is tracking their electronic communications. They used them anyway— to their advantage. Of course, it's impossible to tell from outside government whether operatives using communications lines was actually a sign of a top-down directive or simply a head fake; U.S. officials clearly believe they intercepted what they believe is a credible threat and are working to prevent it from happening.

Even so, al-Qaida is winning the information war. Despite foreboding reports, there has been no large-scale attack, yet al-Qaida is reaping the benefits of a free public-relations boost as news reports swirl about an impending "strategically significant" plot, possibly through surgically implanted devices.

"Killing people is a means to an end for most groups," says Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies. "The terrorists' stock in trade is creation of fear … as much the threat of violence as the act of violence itself. It's all about getting people to respond or react in a manner that the terrorists think will be beneficial to their cause." For those doubting the severity of al-Qaida's ability to terrify Americans anymore, despite a decade of war, look no further than the 19 embassies that are shuttering their operations across the Middle East and the Persian Gulf for more than a week; the worldwide travel alert; the Air Force transporting personnel from Yemen.

This is not to say such a reaction is unwarranted. The U.S. must do whatever is necessary to protect its citizens. Still, as it stands, the terrorists are "eating our lunch," Hoffman says. "They're getting us to react exactly as they want us to. I'm not saying we shouldn't be reacting this way, but we should be aware this is what terrorists always try to achieve. At the moment, al-Qaida is in essence controlling the playing field, by their threats and messages."

This has already proved a winning strategy for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Take the evocative cover in 2010 of the Yemen-based group's propaganda, Inspire magazine, in which a cargo jet appears surrounded by smoke and the title is simply the number $4,200—apparently how much it cost the group to build and place bombs in printer toner cartridges and send them on UPS and FedEx flights. Local authorities intercepted the bombs, which were designed to bypass detection, yet the group still claimed success for its objectives: spreading fear and straining the Western economy bit by bit through higher security costs.

It's not as if the terrorists don't know about the NSA surveillance program; it's all over the news. Bin Laden's paranoia is not the only evidence of their suspicions in recent years. Senior militant Saeed al-Shihri, confirmed killed earlier this summer by a U.S. drone strike, was castigated by al-Qaida for his sloppiness in using cell phones or satellite phones and other electronic communications, Hoffman says. There are new political pressures to disclose more details to the American public about terrorist threats after the Benghazi attack last year, when the Obama administration was strongly criticized for its delay in calling the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens a terrorist attack. This time, Washington officials are apparently erring on the side of caution, and the U.S. is not taking any chances with the security of diplomatic personnel, as seen by closing its posts abroad, bolstering security and warning travelers.

The danger lies in terrorists reading about the U.S. reaction all over the news and plotting their real attack accordingly, after a lot of news hype, and taking advantage of perceived weaknesses. The terrorists' own intelligence network is sophisticated, says Danny Defenbaugh, a former FBI official for more than three decades who specialized in terrorism. "They have their sources also. If they ... suspect that their methods have been compromised in some way, they're going to immediately detour." The risk is if Washington lowers its guard, it could be surprised later. The government, he says, "can't go talking about [plots] all the time and expect terrorism to be thwarted."

Another danger is failing to find a way to effectively counter the terrorists' message, first private then publicized freely by American media. The ensuing reports of an impending attack have revived concerns that al-Qaida is not on the run. It has raised the profile of its affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula, even though the group's major attempts to launch international attacks in recent years have all failed, including the thwarted printer cartridge bombs and the failed Christmas Day plot to blow up a U.S. airliner in 2009. What's perhaps most troubling is that, a decade into the war on terrorism, operations in Afghanistan are coming to a close, but Washington has not yet successfully found a way to push back against terrorists' ability to generate this fear of an unanticipated, random attack. Indeed, giving into that fear may be the price the country has decided to pay for security, even if it hands the enemy a useful piece of propaganda.