The U.S. closed 22 embassies and other diplomatic outposts in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and North Africa on Sunday, after U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly intercepted unusually specific and excited chatter from high-level al Qaeda operatives. Nineteen of those embassies and consulates will remain closed this week, the State Department said, mostly "out of an abundance of caution."
Lawmakers briefed on the electronic intercepts said Sunday that the embassy closures, plus a month-long security advisory for American tourists abroad, seem justified:
"High-level people from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack," Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said on ABC's This Week. "The good news is that we've picked up intelligence."
"This threat was so specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also certain dates were given," said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) on the same show. "The assumption is that it's probably most likely to happen in the Middle East, but there's no guarantee of that at all.... It could basically be in Europe, it could be in the United States, it could be a series of combined attacks."
The amount of "chatter" is "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) on NBC's Meet the Press. "We didn't take heed on 9/11 in a way that we should, but here I think it's very important that we do take the right kind of planning as we come to the close of Ramadan," the Islamic holy month that ends this week.
The lawmakers credit the National Security Agency (NSA) for intercepting the key messages, which might seem suspicious given attempts to rein in the NSA's surveillance powers. But Canada and several European nations are also closing their embassies in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, and Interpol is warning about the increased risks of al Qaeda attacks due to a series of high-profile prison breaks in Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties, unidentified U.S. officials, and U.S. intelligence agency chiefs all agree that these warnings point to a serious attempt to harm Western interests, but there's a "strange, wait-and-see climate surrounding a threat that appears to be both specific and maddeningly vague," says Mark Mazzetti at The New York Times. The threats are real, but the targets are unknown.
"This is the new al Qaeda," Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., tells The New York Times. "It is better understood as a loose movement, rather than a single organization." Unlike with the pre-9/11 organization led by Osama bin Laden, he adds, "the U.S. has to deal with a number of terror groups across multiple continents who are generally not coordinating with each other."
Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been the most active of these al Qaeda affiliates, blamed for several thwarted terrorist attacks involving bombs. And it's possible that U.S. drone strikes against AQAP in Yemen, some of which have killed key leaders, "may have lulled us into thinking the threat from that group had passed," Bruce Hoffman at Georgetown University tells The Wall Street Journal.
It could also be that al Qaeda is toying with America. Some U.S. intelligence chiefs are suspicious about "the scale of the attacks discussed in the intercepted al Qaeda communications," say Bloomberg's Michelle Jamrisko and Nicole Gaouette, plus "the fact that the messages violated the terrorist group's known rules about avoiding mobile and satellite phones and online conversations in favor of couriers."
The attacks the terrorists discussed were too ambitious in size and scope to ignore, [two U.S.] officials said, and that may have been deliberate. It's also possible the discussions were intended to put al Qaeda back in the headlines after years of foiled plots.... At the same time, said both officials, it's not time to exhale because the list of targets and the timing in the intercepted communications may have been deliberately misleading, or the planners may have gone back to the drawing board after they learned that their plans had been discovered. [Bloomberg]
The unprecedented closure of almost two dozen U.S. embassies is "both a testament to al Qaeda's persistent threat and perhaps also an indicator of how its aspirations have contracted since 9/11," says Mark Sappenfield at The Christian Science Monitor. After pre-9/11 intelligence shortcomings and the attack in Benghazi, Libya, the phrase "out of an abundance of caution" could be "the new watchword of U.S. response to terror threats."
In the end, says Paul Whitefield at the Los Angeles Times, "terrorists are talking about attacking us." What are you going to do about it? You basically have two options. First, heed the travel advisory and stay home. Or you could realize "you're as safe as you can ever expect to be," Whitefield says, and go ahead and live your life. "Life is short: Get on that plane. Board that train, or boat. Enjoy the world."
Now, it isn't that I'm not grateful the government is looking out for me. And heck, I'd rather have more information than less, especially when it comes to people trying to do me harm. Really, though, this warning is the government equivalent of parents telling their kids not to talk to strangers. It makes the parents feel a bit better, it scares the kids, and it doesn't really prevent child abductions — which are extremely rare anyway. [Los Angeles Times]