On Sunday, the U.S. closed 21 embassies across North Africa and the Middle East and plans to keep 19 of them closed through Saturday. The State Department said that the closings were made out of “an overabundance of caution,” as the intelligence community has reported high risk of a major attack in the works by Al-Qaeda’s cell in Yemen, known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some have said that the current threat is the most serious since 9/11. Some European nations have also closed their Yemen embassies as a result.
The closings come as the Obama administration also struggles to defend controversial NSA surveillance programs. But just how unusual is the threat behind the current embassy closings?
Twelve years after the start of the “Global War on Terror,” administration officials have been keen to say that Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations have been severely weakened. This is especially true after the death of Osama bin Laden. But a State Department report has also stated that as terrorist organizations become more fragmented, the threat they pose becomes more diffuse. Affiliates in other parts of the world have become more independent.
Those diffuse threats translate into literally thousands of tips about terrorism threats every day. In 2010, the FBI’s online tip line alone received an average of 700 messages a day. Then there are the tips from people calling in to local authorities, walking into embassies to make a report, and, of course, the “chatter” we’ve been hearing about in announcements about the weekend’s embassy closings. All told, the National Counterterrorism Center gets about 8,000-10,000 potential threats a day.
The intelligence community learned about this latest threat after intercepting communications between Ayman al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda’s new leader, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP. Officials said it was unusual for such high-level operatives to communicate directly about an attack, which is why the intercepted communication led to such a major response from the U.S.
AQAP has become the most powerful and operationally active Al-Qaeda affiliate, despite the administration’s ongoing drone campaign in Yemen. This has led some experts to question the efficacy of the drone campaign.
In a New York Times interview, Princeton Yemen scholar and author Gregory Johnsen asked, “If the Obama administration is confident that its strategy in Yemen is correct, then why is Al-Qaeda growing in Yemen and why is the group still capable of forcing the U.S. to shut down embassies in more than a dozen countries?”