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How al-Qaeda Succeeded Last Week

Terrorism is essentially a force multiplier, enabling a weaker insurgent to exhaust much stronger government forces hamstrung by needing to provide comprehensive security for a civilian population against an elusive enemy capable of striking anywhere. The terrorists know they cannot win on the battlefield so they instead seek to make the conflict so expensive and damaging that their opponent collapses under the strain. Osama bin Laden clearly understood that principle and more than once alluded to his desire to see the United States impoverish itself and squander its resources in its struggle to defeat him.

Washington’s overly muscular response to 9/11 has included two major wars in Asia in which [1] 6,749 Americans and more than a hundred thousand locals have died. Lesser conflicts span the globe, including the Philippines, Yemen, and Uganda while predator drones regularly carry out missions in Pakistan and Somalia. The global war on terror has resulted in the doubling of the size and cost of the federal government, the creation of a huge new bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security, and the militarization of police forces at every level throughout the United States. It is difficult to tabulate the actual cost in dollars as the legacy expenses, including medical care for veterans, will continue for many more years, but the two wars alone will have consumed [2] between $4 and $6 trillion if and when they are ever actually paid off. Unquantifiable collateral damage from the war on terror has also been considerable, with the United States now reviled in much of the world even as fundamental liberties have been eroded at home.

9/11 was spectacular and demanded a devastating response, but terrorism also plays out in smaller ways, as it did last week. Twenty-two U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa were closed, many for the entire week, and all nonessential personnel at the Embassy in Yemen were evacuated. The closure was ordered because al-Qaeda’s de facto leader Ayman al-Zawahiri reportedly [3] sent a message via intermediaries to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of the franchise operation al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), calling for an attack against unspecified western targets. The message was obtained by the CIA and there might even have been an intercepted al-Qaeda conference call [4] relating to it shortly before the security alert was issued. AQAP is widely believed to be al-Qaeda’s most capable affiliate and the suggestion for the attack might have actually been initiated by al-Wuhayshi rather than by the group’s leadership in Pakistan. A flurry of chatter on websites and through communications channels believed to be used by militants also occurred, suggesting that an attack might be imminent. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda is best able to strike at home and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula but its potential reach also extends to neighboring states, including Egypt and the Emirates, as well as to the Horn of Africa.

The U.S. intelligence community regarded the threat as “credible and specific” enough not to ignore. But the decision to close the embassies was purely political in that a risk-averse White House did not want to revisit a Benghazi type situation where an unfortunate incident would be carefully dissected by the Republicans to obtain political advantage. Indeed, in this case, Republican spokesmen strongly and uncharacteristically endorsed the move by the president.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t considerable dissent in the National Security Council. Some believed that there was no actual attack impending, that the intercepted message and chatter were deliberate moves to confuse Washington and force it to overreact. Others argued that if the instructions actually came from al-Zawahiri they might well be ignored by AQAP. State Department Security stated its belief that most of the potentially targeted embassy and consulate buildings were secure against anything but an overwhelming number of heavily armed attackers, which was highly improbable. Unlike the facility in Benghazi, Inman plan embassies, the norm in the countries affected, are designed for security and are more like fortresses than government buildings or offices. They have an outer perimeter fence or wall that is usually protected by local security forces and contract guards, barriers on driveways that can stop a truck, a setback before one reaches the actual building to protect against car bombs, a thick wall angled to deflect and force of an explosion, and shatter-proof armored windows on all sides of the building facing any public street or road. Marines inside the building are armed with automatic weapons and there is a containment space which doubles as a killing field inside the main entrance which can be sealed off even if someone does manage to break through the outer security. In the depths of the building there is normally a safe haven with its own power supply, food and water, as well as an independent communications system.

And some of the more creative minds on the NSC saw the terrorist threat as an opportunity to draw the most effective cadres of AQAP out of hiding and crush them in an attack on an embassy building that would be anticipated, planned for, and met with overwhelming force. The Pentagon suggested stationing a quick reaction force offshore to provide whatever muscle might be needed while CIA was prepared to send an incident response team into Sana’a to coordinate a counter-strike using drones. The only problem with those proposals was one could easily find oneself with all the resources stacked up in the wrong place, given that the target of the attack might not be the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a. But the evidence suggested Yemen’s capital as the most likely target, an assumption that was apparently confirmed—though not independently verified—when it was learned [5] that the Yemeni security services believed that “dozens” of suspected al-Qaeda militants had entered the country. The embassy was subsequently closed with all non-essential personnel evacuated while all American citizens were also advised to leave. The British Embassy also closed and all personnel were flown home.

Apart from [6] a number of CIA drone strikes and an uncorroborated Yemeni-claimed disruption of a possible complex plot directed against oil pipelines and ports, nothing happened last week in spite of the terrorism panic and the story is already disappearing down the memory hole. Assuming the federal government acted in good faith and the entire incident was not a fabrication to serve as a justification for National Security Agency spying, closing the embassies proved not to be a solution to anything. Inevitably, it seems, the White House came up with a compromise response that kicks the can down the road regarding its ability to deal with a terrorism threat. One might even consider the U.S. action to be damaging, as it put paid to White House claims that al-Qaeda is increasingly a spent force, increasing its appeal in places like Yemen. By virtue of an errant message which might, in fact, have been deliberate disinformation, the group shut down most of the United States diplomatic facilities in the Middle East as well as in much of Africa. The lesson learned for al-Qaeda is that faking a transparent threat is a disruptive technique that can be employed over and over again against a politically vulnerable President Barack Obama. Indeed, the closure [7] of the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore, Pakistan and a travel warning for the entire country at the end of last week might have been precisely such a fabricated threat.

If the al-Qaeda terrorist threat was indeed real, Ayman al-Zawahiri may have also learned, from an apparent White House leak, that his communications have been intercepted, meaning he will change the way he does things, and the next time around there might not be any forewarning. From an operational point of view, shutting down embassies does not make a problem go away, it only postpones it. An August attack becomes a September attack with the White House attempting to anticipate what might be coming, constantly playing catch-up in a game in which the enemy can dictate all the moves.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "How al-Qaeda Succeeded Last Week"

#1 Comment By Richard Parker On August 14, 2013 @ 3:47 am

Beware the Bogie Man!

#2 Comment By spite On August 14, 2013 @ 4:39 am

Ah yes the Yemeni security service said it is true so it must be true, as everyone knows they are internationally renowned for being a credible organization with a strong human rights culture.

One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that this event was just a government that wanted to justify its vast and growing surveillance state. Sadly this does work though, shut down some embassies, launch some drones and have no actual embassy attack people, most people will fall for this.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 14, 2013 @ 6:00 am

:9/11 was spectacular and demanded a devastating response, but terrorism also plays out in smaller ways, as it did last week.”

Well rgere you have it. That comment is why thgey won. 9/11 did nt require adevestating response. It required due dikigen investigatory and astute and specific apprehension responses, on a relatively small group of actors.

That premise and its subsequent responses has created the current status of the national security over reach.

It required just the opposite. response, small, covert and incisive.

#4 Comment By balconesfault On August 14, 2013 @ 6:05 am

the decision to close the embassies was purely political in that a risk-averse White House did not want to revisit a Benghazi type situation where an unfortunate incident would be carefully dissected by the Republicans to obtain political advantage.

Yes … that is exactly where we are.

#5 Comment By Michael N Moore On August 14, 2013 @ 7:24 am

The security industrial complex has every reason to inflate or create these scares. 4609 Americans die in workplace accidents each year and 33,000 die in traffic accidents. 285 people were killed by Hurrican Sandy. In the US, 5 people have died in terrorist attacks this year and none last year.

The more we over-react the more successful the attack. Just clean up and go back to business. “Terrorism” is nothing but a minor irritant to our country.

#6 Comment By Henri James On August 14, 2013 @ 10:43 am

I think as long as you’re not doing it every week there’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution like this.

#7 Comment By Henri James On August 14, 2013 @ 10:44 am

Also this was hardly scare mongering; it was a non story that played a few times on some news networks. This time next week few Americans will even remembered that it happened.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 14, 2013 @ 10:50 am

“Terrorism” is nothing but a minor irritant to our country.”

I could not agree less.

But it does require a different strategy than large scale invasion. Had there been any evidence that Iraq or the Taliban had participated in 9/11 — I would sing a different tune.

But short of that – no.

The invasion has actually exposed more of our military vulnerabilities as opposed to having sent a message — though I have to admit that whether the message was: we will invade you and make a mess and leave or we will invade you an have you kill each other as well as us in a never ending tit for tat blood letting

I have this mind as to invasions. If you have to use the military in this fashion — do so such that the invaded have no choice but to bend to your will.

No point sending men into harnms way for if in the end I have created more of what I have invaded to resolve.

Said in all due respect and in great appreciation of Mr. Giraldi’s CIA service — I wish I could have been so priviledged. Though my views on 9/11 would have gotten me tossed from there as they did in education — but at leat I could have saved my self the physical assault.

Appreciate your service sir.

#9 Comment By The Wet One On August 14, 2013 @ 11:59 am

So, what I’m hearing is, that Americans are a bunch of pansies.

I’m inclined to the agree with that. Since 9/11 “Home the Brave, Land of the Free” has become more and more of a utter and complete falsehood. This article is just more evidence of same.

Sad, but nothing lasts forever.

#10 Comment By channelclemente On August 14, 2013 @ 1:09 pm

The Special Operations tempo, excluding drones, has been rumored to have at least doubled. I would speculate that the drone activity is the leading edge of efforts to consolidate outcomes by ground action. I believe cockroaches from under the frig is an apt metaphor.

#11 Comment By spite On August 14, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

Henri James
For a supposed non story it sure was latched on by lot of the prominent surveillance state politicians saying how wonderful the NSA was.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 14, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

Not to mention, John. Q. Public needed reminding why not just the Geneva Conventions, but the Bill of Rights itself, must become justified collateral damage to the national surveillance state’s evisceration of democratic accountability.

We have gotten a shock when we found this starling gestated in secret has pushed our democratic governance out of the nest, our reaction to recent revelations threatening its continued takeover.

Political fear theater with an unlimited off-budget.

I appreciate Phil Giraldi, but regard his service to the country more along the lines of that of the beleaguered American political dissident now overseas – as in typical Hollywood plots, both had to leave the force to solve the crime.

#13 Comment By Joe On August 14, 2013 @ 3:05 pm

“Should one point out that from ancient times decline in courage has been considered the beginning of the end?”
-Alexander Solzhenitsyn

#14 Comment By Cliff On August 14, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

“al-Qaeda’s de facto leader Ayman al-Zawahiri reportedly sent a message”

“there might even have been an intercepted al-Qaeda conference call”

OK, but what do we KNOW? Nothing. We’re told to believe these things, and that they justify the national security state, but we’re not told why we should believe — we’re expected to trust our leaders. But another way to look at this, especially in light of the Snowden disclosures, is that it shows just how untrustworthy they are. (See, in this regard, [8])

I saw no reason to believe anything simply because Bush said it was so, and I see no more reason to believe Obama when he does the same thing. I’m not from Missouri but I say: show me.

#15 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On August 14, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

Well Phil, as you pointed out in a previous post, our Middle East Embassies have morphed into fortresses, impeding their usefulness as points of interchange with host countries. Now, due to our hair-trigger reaction to threats, we are seen as cowards, afraid even behind our protective walls. What kind of message does that impart?

Surely, part of the prestige of being in our foreign service is the knowledge that one represents our country well, even in uncivilized places. What honor can one take in going abroad cloaked in “Consumer Product Safety Commission” safety assurances? I think of diplomats as possessing both poise and courage. Is that just another romantic fantasy?

I don’t understand the mentality of letting the enemy know we have breached his communications. If the administration really believed that an attack was planned, would not that have been an opportunity to spring a trap?

#16 Comment By balconesfault On August 14, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

I think of diplomats as possessing both poise and courage. Is that just another romantic fantasy?

I think our diplomats do possess that … in fact, Benghazi showed exactly that.

The problem is that now the political price for any sitting administration that loses an ambassador to a terror attack has been raised to an untenable level. While our men and women abroad may be courageous, it is inevitable given the continued obsession over the Benghazi attack that bureaucrats and politicians alike back in Washington will now do whatever they can to make that courage a vestigal trait.

#17 Comment By Maria On August 15, 2013 @ 1:21 am

Washington isn’t fearful of Al-Qaeda – – they’re supplying their fellow fighters with weapons in Syria, aren’t they? And didn’t Washington negotiate with them in order to start drawing down in Afghanisan? Something like that.

No. The alarmism over possible attacks on the embassies was for the benefit of the idiots that keep electing those people.

#18 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On August 15, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

balconesfault wrote, “it is inevitable given the continued obsession over the Benghazi attack that bureaucrats and politicians alike back in Washington will now do whatever they can to make that courage a vestigal trait.”

The “obsession” over the Benghazi attack was set off not by the death of our personnel but by the lies, obfuscations and bungling that followed. The administration tried to spin the deaths and stupidly tried to defend their spin rather than doing the right thing.

Imagine a President with some spine. Such a President would have:

1. Spoken out immediately, telling the American people that some good men had died on their behalf, and lowered the flags to half staff. The emphasis would have been an overwhelming celebration of the fallen and their lives.

2. A few security Geishas within State would have been fired/transferred.

3. The President would see to a vigorous investigation followed by speedy killings of those responsible. These duly reported to the American public with healthy helpings of relish.

Fox would have had no traction to run with this issue if the above had been done.

#19 Comment By cecelia On August 15, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

Yes let us be honest about using Benghazi as a “gotcha moment” and the consequences. Thanks a lot dear Congress.

I think elimination of Dept of Homeland Security would be the best of all possible things. Probably solve any deficit concerns – stop the militarization of our police. End too the obsession with terrorism.

Most especially though – we must understand that those who seek the restoration of the Caliphate believe the West is weak and ready to collapse. They think they can give us that final push over the edge. We think we are acting prudently – they see it as weakness and it reinforces their belief that we are weak and verging on collapse. I do not advocate military force – but I do advocate that we demonstrate our determination to defend our values and way of life and that we do so robustly, consistently and honorably Someone ought to let our brain dead Congress that the security and honor of the US is not to be used as a political ploy.

#20 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On August 15, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

Yes, by all means let’s blame Congress for the failures of the Executive Branch. Everything would have been fine if everything that happened could be blamed on some rotten little immigrant Egyptian film maker.

No, it wont wash. Fox and the GOP Congress critters are just doing what pol’s do, snipe. And Obama handed them every round of ammunition.

#21 Comment By libfreak48 On August 16, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

Right – because when we left our embassies open in Libya, conservatives lauded Obama’s bravery in the face of imminent terror…

#22 Comment By Augustbrhm On August 17, 2013 @ 9:04 am

Osama Bin Laden lives on his words for america was “l will bankrupt you and destroy your youth.” A pity though America can still be a nice place.

#23 Comment By REMant On August 18, 2013 @ 12:01 am

The entire episode seemed nonsensical. Why close the facilities when nothing is being done to parry the threat? Aside from some idle chatter, they appear to have had no more idea than FDR and Marshall about what would be attacked, or did they…

#24 Comment By Tom B On August 21, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

Terrorist have won. All they have to do is shake their fist and yell boo and the urinary and bowel tracks of everyone on the Hill are completely voided. Overly reacting to things that justify any expansion of programs on the hill is not an uncommon move. Is anyone really surprised. The fact that our borders [especially to the south] are left wide open for terrorist to come and go at their will should tell you a lot.
If we are so afraid of what may happen at these embassy’s then they should be permanently shut down and our staff brought home. The next move would be to close the embassy’s those countries have here in the USA and send them packing. Let them know that after they get their problems solved we’ll talk again.

#25 Comment By Winston On September 20, 2014 @ 2:56 am

US should tell ME buddies to stop supporting Al Queda. But now same people are in new coalition of willing. That’s why people are mocking effort.
Gen. Wesley Clark: Saudis, Qatar Created ISIS Threat
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U.S lawmakers encouraged officials in Riyadh to arm Syrian rebels. Now that strategy may have created a monster in the Middle East.
Why is Turkey supporting Islamic State fighters in Iraq?
America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now threatening Baghdad, was funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, three U.S. allies that have dual agendas in the war on terror.