May 11, 2012
(CBS News) -- It has been a remarkable couple of weeks for terrorists and those who hunt them.
On May 2, administration officials did a victory lap around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The next day, the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, answered with a double issue of their slickly produced "Inspire Magazine."
Both publishers of the English-language online magazine - Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan (both American citizens) - had been killed in a drone strike, and many assumed the magazine would die with them. The latest issues had tributes to the two men, as well as the standard instructional articles on bomb making and assassination.
Even as all that was unfolding, an undercover operative deep inside AQAP was revealing a plot to blow up a U.S.-bound jet with an updated version of the underwear bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his failed 2009 Christmas day attack.
Over the weekend, a drone strike had killed Fahd al-Quso, an AQAP commander wanted for his role in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.
By Monday, news of the latest underwear bomb plot had leaked. There was another victory lap, followed quickly by the gnashing of teeth over the leak, and news that there might be other bombs and other bombers.
On Thursday came news of another drone strike killing a handful of suspected AQAP militants in Yemen, but even as that happened the group released a well-crafted statement talking about the death of al-Quso.
It has been striking to watch al Qaeda struggle. This beleaguered and battered group is still determined and adaptable. They have been captured, penetrated by informants, and had many leaders killed by hellfire missiles screaming down from the skies over parts of Pakistan and Yemen.
Yet they still manage to try and launch a complex suicide bombing plot, put out two magazines to a world of jihadists looking for guidance and a press release about a commander who was killed.
Meanwhile, AQAP has likely also been trying to assess the damage inflicted upon the group by the Saudi/CIA informant, and to determine how much more damage he could still do based on what he knows from his time working undercover in their ranks.
All these developments have come so fast, and with such rapidly changing details, that it is worth putting into some context. We have an adversary that lives by a battle cry: "We love death as much as you love life!"
Yes, we are winning and they are losing. But AQAP and other al Qaeda groups have people willing to die in order to kill for their cause, and the notion of quitting because they're down a few points in the game won't likely be considered, even for a moment.
So, what are the most important points to consider going forward?
The leak investigation: Where are we?
The Justice Department has a "referral", an official request to launch a probe. They are reviewing that against a complex set of criteria. For a criminal investigation, it can't just be a leak, it has to be a leak that breaks the law.
In this case, given that there was classified information involved, and releasing classified information can be a crime, this will probably be approved. In most cases, the investigation will go to the FBI's Counterintelligence Division and they will use everything from interviews, to polygraphs to grand jury subpoenas if needed to get to the bottom of this.
The threat from AQAP
AQAP has vowed revenge for the death of al-Quso. There is still concern that there may be additional bombs and other bombers who could be unleashed, even after the first attempt was uncovered.
The U.S. has spent many millions of dollars getting full-body scanners into airports, and that may make the terrorist's job harder, but the expensive devices are not ubiquitous at international airports, from which many hundreds of flights to the U.S. take off every day.
It also must be noted that AQAP's talented bomb maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, is still at large, and believed to be training others in his deadly art. Also, after the bombs hidden inside printers made it onto cargo planes, AQAP boasted on the front page of its magazine that the project only cost them $4,200, and was forcing the U.S. government and cargo companies to spend hundreds of millions on security measures.
Al Qaeda believes even a failed plot is a success if it causes fear and costs the U.S. money.
The threat to AQAP
Another drone strike in Yemen took out a handful of men suspected to be AQAP militants, including two managers in charge of weaponry for the group. This is a sign that information developed through debriefings of the source that was inside the group are still being used tactically to set up attacks against their strongholds in Yemen.
The threat to the double agent: Will we learn his name?
We shouldn't, but I suspect we will. His name is a closely guarded secret inside intelligence agencies. There may be leaks about many things, but there is a bright line on leaking the name of a human source.
But AQAP doesn't have that rule, and they know who he is by now and probably have pictures of him. It would not be surprising to see a full-length feature on him, describing him as a traitor and a puppet of the Saudis and Americans, in the next issue of AQAP's Inspire Magazine - complete with photos.