A Yemeni army officer lifted by anti-government protestors shouts slogans during a demonstration March 28 demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Muhammed Muheisen / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — 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."
Since merging with al-Qaida's Saudi Arabian affiliate in 2009, the organization has used al-Awlaki and fellow U.S. citizen Samir Khan to deliver inspirational messages and attract Western jihadists. The group has demonstrated it can get explosives aboard cargo and commercial planes despite tight security. Such flexibility allows it to strike at its choosing and move outside the al-Qaida bureaucracy controlled by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
After the airstrikes in 2009 and early 2010, al-Qaida, which was dispersed among a few cells, stopped using cell phones and began relying on hand-held walkie-talkies.
When an unmanned aerial vehicle picks up a cell phone call, it can identify the location of the participants and use the phone numbers to make a pretty good guess about who's on the call. Conversations on hand-held radios are more difficult to unravel. Further complicating things, the terrorists began identifying themselves using numbers, not names.
Frustrating U.S. intelligence, al-Qaida operatives in Yemen began employing couriers to pass messages by hand, or to duck into an Internet café to send emails. Those emails were encrypted using custom software written in the Gulf region by "cyberjihadists" or "virtual al-Qaida." The software is similar to, but more sophisticated than, off-the-shelf program used by Faisal Shahzad to disguise his emails in preparation for an attempted bombing in New York's Times Square last May, current and former officials said.
The political turmoil in Yemen has created uncertainty among counterterrorism officials in Washington. Before the protests, when it looked like Saleh would continue his decades-long presidency, the U.S. was planning to expand operations there. The CIA had bolstered its station and there were discussions about broadening airstrikes and working more closely with Yemeni counterterrorism officials on ground operations.
All that has come to a halt.
If the Yemeni government collapses, the concern is how al-Qaida, with its track record of adapting to new adversity, will adapt to new freedom.