The intercepted conversations were between Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as head of al-Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the newspaper said, citing American officials.
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The Times said it had initially withheld the identities of the al-Qaeda leaders at the request of senior US intelligence officials, but reported them after the names were disclosed Sunday by McClatchy Newspapers.
American spies and intelligence analysts on Monday scoured email, phone calls and radio communications between al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen and the organization's senior leaders to determine the timing and targets of a potentially spectacular attack that officials said they came across in monitoring militants' "chatter."
Lawmakers have said it was a massive plot in the final stages, but they offered no specifics. Intelligence officials told The Associated Press that the target could be a single embassy or a number of posts, or still other Western objectives. The diffuse nature of the monitored information led the Obama administration to close diplomatic posts from Mauritania on Africa's west coast through the Middle East to Bangladesh, east of India, and as far south as Madagascar.
Forces near UK embassy in Sanaa (Photo: Reuters)
The US did decide to reopen some posts on Monday, including well-defended embassies in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad.
Officials wouldn't say who intercepted the initial suspect communications – the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency or one of the other intelligence agencies – that kicked off the sweeping pre-emptive closure of US facilities. But an intelligence official said the controversial NSA programs that gather data on American phone calls or track Internet communications with suspected terrorists played no part in detecting the initial tip. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the spying publicly.
Once the plot was detected however, NSA analysts could use the programs that leaker Edward Snowden revealed to determine whom the plotters may have contacted around the world. Snowden revealed one program that collected telephone data such as the numbers called and the duration of calls on US telephone networks. Another program searched global Internet usage. Therefore, if a new name was detected in the initial chatter, the name or phone number of that person could be run through the NSA databases to see whom he called or what websites or emails he visited.
The surveillance is part of the continuing effort to track the spread of al-Qaeda from its birthplace in Afghanistan and Pakistan to countries where governments and security forces are weaker and less welcoming to the US or harder for American counterterrorist forces to penetrate – such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Mali and Libya – as well as Yemen, already home to al-Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Administration officials have said the plot seems to be centered in and may be carried out by that affiliate, known as AQAP.
AQAP also has been blamed for the foiled December 25, 2009 effort to bomb an airliner over Detroit and the explosives-laden parcels intercepted the following year aboard cargo flights. The CIA and Pentagon jointly run drone targeting of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Last week, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met with President Barack Obama at the White House. Administration officials would not say if the threat was discussed in that meeting.
"Clearly, AQAP is the most active terrorist organization there and has been the most operationally active affiliate of al-Qaeda core," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
The Yemeni government also went on high alert Monday, stepping up security at government facilities and checkpoints, according to a Mideast diplomat in the US The diplomat said the Yemen alert was related to the threat that led to the temporary shutdown of the US embassies.
Yemen has released the names of 25 wanted al-Qaeda suspects, saying they were planning terror attacks in the capital Sanaa and other cities across the country.
A statement Monday from the Interior Ministry said the men were going to target foreign offices and organizations and Yemeni installations.
The Yemeni statement named some alleged top figures in the branch, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi national Mohammed el-Rubaish.
The statement added security forces would pay $23,000 to anyone who comes forward with information that leads to the arrests of any of the wanted men.
White House spokesman Jay Carney wouldn't say whether the threat extends to the United States or whether Americans should be fearful because of the alerts.
"What we know is the threat emanates from, and may be focused on, occurring in the Arabian Peninsula," Carney said. "It could potentially be beyond that, or elsewhere."
US State Department closed embassies and consulates on Sunday and issued a worldwide travel alert warning Americans that al-Qaeda may be planning attacks in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.
The threat also has prompted some European countries to close their embassies in Yemen, where an al-Qaeda affiliate that is considered one of the most dangerous – al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – is based.
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