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Al Qaeda intercept challenges narrative of terror group 'on the run'

 

Reports that top-level communications among Al Qaeda operatives prompted the ongoing security alert affecting U.S. embassies around the world have raised even more questions about the Obama administration's repeated claims that Al Qaeda is "on the run." 

The assertion that Al Qaeda -- with the death of Usama bin Laden and of many of his lieutenants -- is a shell of its former self was a linchpin of the 2012 Obama campaign. Even with the ongoing security threat, the State Department insisted as recently as Tuesday that the "Al Qaeda core has been weakened, decimated," despite lingering concerns about the affiliates. President Obama repeated, during a visit Wednesday to Camp Pendleton, that "the core of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the way to defeat." 

The Daily Beast reported Wednesday that sources said it was a massive conference call of more than 20 Al Qaeda leaders that tipped off the U.S. to the alleged terror plot. In The Daily Beast report, one intelligence officer reportedly described the communication of top Al Qaeda leaders as "like a meeting of the Legion of Doom."  

Fox News was told by multiple senior military and intelligence sources that reports of a conference call were "not credible." One intelligence official said it was "far-fetched" to think that many leaders would consider a conference call of that size secure -- the official speculated it was more likely the operatives were talking in some kind of chat room. One source flatly said that it "wasn't a conference call."

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Fox News has confirmed, though, that an "electronic intercept" of a communication between Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula did lead to the precautionary measures. 

Thomas Sanderson, senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Transnational Threats Project, also told FoxNews.com he's "dubious" about the claim that more than 20 operatives were holding a conference call. 

But he said that if even one core Al Qaeda member was on it, "that shows that even a decimated Al Qaeda core can still cause trouble for the U.S." 

"It shows that despite what we may have heard, that Al Qaeda core has diminished ... they're very much alive and well," Josh Rogin, who co-wrote the article, told Fox News. "It's a much more cohesive organization than we previously realized." 

The claim of Al Qaeda's decline has been challenged over the past week, as the administration scrambled to close 19 embassies and consulates through Saturday in response to the threat. The State Department issued a global travel alert on Friday and on Tuesday ordered many U.S. government personnel out of Yemen, which may be the epicenter of the threat. 

On Tuesday, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., while praising the administration's response to the threat, chastised its claims that Al Qaeda is weakened. 

"I'm very critical of President Obama for trying to act as if Al Qaida has been defeated, they've been decimated," he told Fox News. "It's only a pre-9/11 attitude we have. The fact is, Al Qaeda -- yes, their central command has been hit very hard, but they morphed and metastasized. They now have affiliates all over." 

King described the policy of targeting Al Qaeda leaders while at the same time telling the American people the group is defeated as "schizophrenic." 

The security warnings are fueled not only by the intercepted communications but also recent jailbreaks in several countries that have allowed dozens of extremist operatives and their supporters back onto the streets. 

To date, the U.S. government's response to the threat appears to be another series of drone strikes. 

One drone strike killed seven suspected Al Qaeda militants in Yemen on Wednesday. It was the fifth such strike in less than two weeks in Yemen. 

Officials told The Washington Post that the campaign is related to the intelligence regarding an Al Qaeda plot. 

The Yemeni government also announced Wednesday that they disrupted Al Qaeda plots against oil pipelines and an important port. 

A senior U.S. official told Fox News that these plots likely were "part and parcel of a larger operation the AQAP has in the works."  This official said despite the disruption of these plots, "there is an ongoing threat beyond Yemen." 

"They may have disrupted an element but concern remains about a larger operation out there," the official said. 

Aside from the drone strikes, a senior U.S. defense official told Fox News that there are currently about 1,400 Marines aboard U.S. Naval vessels off the coast of Yemen. They have been there for some time, but are in a position to help if needed. 

Walid Phares, Fox News Middle East and terrorism analyst, suggested the Obama administration is still relying too much on drone strikes to take out terror operatives who end up being replaced by other operatives. 

The solution, he said, is "terminating what produces them." 

"What produces Al Qaeda is the ideology. We're not waging war on the ideology -- we actually, the administration that is, is not even recognizing that there is one," Phares said. 

President Obama lauded his anti-terror achievements during the presidential campaign. "We said that we would go after Al Qaeda, and they are on the run and bin Laden is dead," he said at a Sept. 28 campaign event in Washington. 

Obama, appearing on the "Tonight Show" on Tuesday, defended his administration's response to the latest threat.   

"It's significant enough that we're taking every precaution.  ... And whenever we see a threat stream that we think is specific enough that we can take some specific precautions within a certain timeframe, then we do so," Obama said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.