Closing Embassies in the Middle East and the Threat from al Qaeda

  • Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Montevideo http://www.flickr.com/photos/usembassy_montevideo/5737052689/sizes/o/in/photostream/
    Aug 6, 2013

    On August 2, 2013, an intercepted message among al Qaeda operatives caused the U.S. Department of State to shutter 22 embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa. The original travel advisory specifically mentioned threats emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. Two days later, the State Department announced that posts in 19 cities would remain closed until August 10, which it states is a practice in accordance with normal closures surrounding Eid, a feast that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In light of vague threats about “terrorist chatter,” harkening back to 9/11 and the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, what is really going on?

    Q1: Which terrorist groups are in the Arabian Peninsula, and what might they be trying to do?

    A1: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, is the region’s most prominent group and was formed in 2009 through the merger of al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The original Yemeni al Qaeda affiliate was responsible for the devastating suicide attack against the USS Cole in 2000, and the Saudi branch was responsible for the 2004 attack on the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

    Intelligence and security forces across the globe have greatly reduced the chances of a repeat 9/11-style attack. However, terrorist groups have evolved after surviving more than a decade of withering counter-network operations, and they present a far more sophisticated, seasoned opponent than before. Terrorists understand that hierarchical organizations are vulnerable to disruption, while smaller organizations, distributed operations, and partnerships can make a deep impact.

    A good example of this is AQAP’s 2010 launch of “Operation Hemorrhage,” a plan to use low-signature attacks against the United States to provoke massive, costly changes to U.S. security infrastructure. AQAP’s Christmas Day plot of December 2009 (a precursor to Operation Hemorrhage), and its parcel bomb plot of October 2010, epitomize AQAP’s low-signature strategy.

    In the November 2010 edition of AQAP’s influential English-language magazine Inspire, associates of the group state that the discovery of the parcel bombs “would raise a worldwide alert that would force upon the West two choices: you either spend billions of dollars to inspect each and every package in the world or you do nothing and we keep trying again.” (Inspire’s editor Samir Khan was killed alongside central AQAP figure Anwar al Awlaki in September 2011. Both were American citizens.) AQAP had hoped to “force the West to install stringent security measures sufficient to stop our explosive devices [which] would add a heavy economic burden to an already faltering economy.”

    Though the attacks were thwarted, AQAP’s Christmas Day plot of 2009 and its parcel bomb plot of 2010 indeed succeeded in provoking disruptive, large-scale reactions. Following the Christmas Day airline plot, the United States deployed body scanners estimated to cost nearly $3 billion over eight years, though the program has since been shrunk.

    Q2: Why might AQAP attack now?

    A2: While loose adherence to Operation Hemorrhage may be the norm for AQAP, prominent members of the Saudi faction likely desire to signal their group’s capabilities and relevance to a wider audience and with greater impact. According to Dr. Christopher Swift of Georgetown University, AQAP’s ability to mount large-scale operations has been reduced since losing control of strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa provinces to the Yemeni military last year. Launching an attack of international significance around the time of Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Manur Hadi’s visit to the United States would prove to be a public-relations coup for the group. It may be for these reasons that Germany and France have closed their embassies in Yemen, and that the United States and United Kingdom have ordered their embassy staff to leave that country.

    More generally, the beginning of August marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is often associated with increased militant activity. As Peter Bergen notes, it was at the end of Ramadan in 2000 (which that year fell in January) when al Qaeda–associated operatives launched a failed suicide attack against the USS The Sullivans, though later succeeding in striking the USS Cole later that year in October.

    While news outlets are quick to mention potential al Qaeda involvement in recent jailbreaks in terrorist hotbeds in Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan (where U.S. embassies and consulates remain closed), any connection to AQAP is purely speculative at this point. Though diffuse groups and individuals across the region may communicate regularly, they are likely unable to coordinate large-scale operations across the globe.

    Still, the potential injection of terrorists can have dramatic results. In 2006, a prison break in Sanaa, Yemen, freed two top Yemeni-born militants, enabling Nasir al Wahishi and Qasim al Raymi to relaunch al Qaeda in Yemen and later AQAP. (Wahishi has been cited as one individual linked to the chatter picked up by U.S. intelligence services. For more on Wahishi and AQAP, see Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

    Q3: Are we overreacting?

    A3: Though it is impossible to determine whether the closure of the embassies is commensurate with the threat uncovered in al Qaeda’s intercepted communications, the balance between overreacting and underreacting is a difficult one to strike, made more complicated by the memory of Benghazi, which may have contributed to the administration’s strong response to the chatter.

    In light of AQAP’s intentions with Operation Hemorrhage, inducing such widespread embassy closings may constitute a public-relations victory for AQAP and the al Qaeda network generally.

    Thomas M. Sanderson is a senior fellow and codirector of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Zack Fellman is program coordinator and research assistant with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Thomas M. Sanderson