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How al-Qaeda Succeeded Last Week

Even the threat of terror attacks was enough to shut down U.S. embassies---and reveal a fearful Washington.
hillary kabul embassy
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, visits the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Oct. 20, 2011. (U.S. Department of State photo by S.K. Vemmer/Released)

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.