A video that recently surfaced on Islamist militant websites shows a large group of al-Qaida fighters – including the terrorist network’s second in command – taking part in a brazen open-air gathering, apparently unconcerned about the prospect of being struck by a U.S. drone.
U.S. officials said that the video appeared to be recent and authentic and that analysts at the CIA and counterterrorism agencies are scrutinizing it for clues to potential plots. The officials declined to say why there had been no U.S. strike or whether U.S. spy agencies were even aware of the gathering before the video emerged.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
At one point in the footage, al-Qaida’s leader in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, issues a warning that the organization remains focused on attacking the United States.
“We must eliminate the cross,” Wuhayshi said, according to a translation of the video, adding that “the bearer of the cross is America.”
Wuhayshi appears without a mask in the video, meeting and speaking with dozens of robed militants. It is one of his most provocative appearances since the United States began a campaign of airstrikes against the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen in 2010.
The faces of some other figures in the recording are digitally obscured, raising concern that the organization was seeking to protect the identities of recruits from Western nations or others potentially being groomed to carry out attacks.
U.S. counterterrorism officials regard the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen as the network’s most potent threat to the United States. The group has been responsible for a series of attempted attacks, including a failed effort to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
Wuhayshi is seen as a potential successor to Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has led al-Qaida since its founder, Osama bin Laden, was killed in 2011. Wuhayshi’s prominent role in the video may have been part of an effort to establish a broader following and secure his eventual claim to al-Qaida’s leadership.
The recording, which appeared on CNN on Tuesday, depicts a gathering of men, many brandishing black flags and rifles, against a rugged and mountainous backdrop.
The footage is reminiscent of scenes from al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, but the group’s affiliate in Yemen has generally avoided such displays.
The militants take part in exercises and assemble to hear speeches from leaders, making no apparent effort to disguise the gathering or avoid detection by drones. The United States has carried out eight airstrikes this year in Yemen, after 26 in 2013.
The CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command have for several years operated parallel drone programs in Yemen.
But the U.S. military’s armed flights have been suspended since an apparently errant strike in December killed as many as a dozen people traveling in a wedding-related caravan of vehicles.