Terrorist threats: Is ‘abundance of caution’ ever excessive?

Last week, the US State Department announced it was shuttering over 20 US diplomatic facilities across the Middle East and North Africa, out of “an abundance of caution,” following the interception of communications indicating a “serious” al Qaeda threat. The New York Times reported that al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahri had ordered Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to attack Western interests as early as Aug. 4.

The initial closing of numerous facilities was followed by announcements that other facilities in sub-Saharan Africa would be closed, and a worldwide travel alert was also issued. Other Western governments, including the UK, France, and Germany, took similar though more limited precautions.

US officials have been tightlipped about the threat, indicating that it is “credible” but not specific as to location or date. Over the past few days, the focus has shifted to Yemen, where a number of recent drone strikes, including one last night, indicate that US counterterrorism efforts are being stepped up.

Just yesterday, the government of Yemen released a list of 25 most-wanted terrorists who were said to be planning attacks on foreign offices and organizations as well as Yemeni installations; it also said: “The Yemeni government has taken all necessary precautions to secure diplomatic facilities, vital installations and strategic assets.”

Among the al Qaeda-linked terrorists killed in last night’s strike was Saleh al-Tays al-Waeli, whose name was on Yemen’s most-wanted list; an al Qaeda leader was also reportedly killed, according to the Yemen Post.

Today the US and the UK have announced the withdrawal of personnel from Yemen due to security concerns. The US told all “nonemergency” government personnel to leave, and the UK withdrew its diplomatic staff in Sanaa, the New York Times reports. Some 75 US personnel were evacuated, according to al Jazeera, and both the US and the UK urged their citizens to avoid travel to Yemen. The State Department’s warning also urged “those US citizens currently living in Yemen to depart immediately.”

Also today, the State Dept. issued a further statement on the threat, the Associated Press reports. State warned of a “threat stream indicating the potential for terrorist attacks against US persons or facilities overseas, especially emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.”

All of this raises questions about the scope and nature of the precautions that governments should take in these cases, which are bound to arise with increasing frequency as new jihadist groups emerge and al Qaeda continues to metastasize. The specter of the Benghazi fiasco has no doubt informed much of the US government’s response to the latest threat.

The government of Yemen today issued a statement criticizing the latest precautions as counterproductive to the effort against terrorism. It said:

Yemen has taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital Sana’a. While the government of Yemen appreciates foreign governments’ concern for the safety of their citizens, the evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism. Yemen remains strongly committed to the global effort to counter the threats of alQaeda and its affiliates.

Yemen may have a point here. Excessive reaction to extremist threats serves the terrorists’ goals of intimidation and publicity. It is also massively disruptive and expensive, and can weaken alliances forged between countries with common interests in fighting terrorism. A recent jihadist forum discussion of the latest threats included the following statement, obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group:

Do you know the effect of the psychological and media war against them? Their deployment and security readiness costs them billions of dollars. We hope to hear more about psychological wars like this one if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground.

On the other hand, no one wants to be responsible for dismissing, discounting, or somehow failing to prevent a terrorist attack. And Western decisionmakers are cognizant that terror groups do not rely on threats alone to achieve their aims; empty threats ultimately cost the group credibility and prestige in the jihadist world.

Assessing the proper response to a given threat is a tough balancing act, one at which the West will have to become adept.

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11 Comments

  • Brandt says:

    So are we going back to the Post-9/11 color-coded “terror alert” levels? This is complete nonsense to distract from the Bradley Manning verdict and Edward Snowden’s asylum- a simple press release to SCARE everyone back into approving the Surveillance State. Read about the Orwellian Nightmare we’ve woken to at //dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html

  • mike merlo says:

    good overview but that still doesn’t relieve the US Government from exaggerating an already well known threat. The US Government for too long, under the auspices of President Obama, has sought to frame ‘this threat’ as one of diminished capacity. Repeatedly misleading the General Public as to the threat level & its composition. What makes ‘this’ even more disturbing is a 4th Estate that not only willingly gives the Obama Administration a ‘Free Pass’ but supports & champions just about any narrative it conjures up & ‘deploys’ it as if it was Gospel.
    Even the many so-called ‘Think Tankers’ & those tasked, voluntarily or otherwise, to comment, deliberate, analysis, etc., on ‘this’ threat repeatedly peddle erroneous assumptions. For example the Obama Administration’s, now overly flogged ‘dead horse,’ of a decimated AQ Core & the ‘aforementioned’ dredging up this confab of a ‘Decentralized’ AQ.
    While the issue of Decentralization ‘carried the day,’ understandably so, early on it is now obvious that this is a ‘Top Down’ Organization, hierarchical, ‘governed’ by a Chain Of Command, subject to protocols & demanding of discipline. The issue of ‘compartmentalization’ has unfortunately surfaced as the principal variable(element?) by which we have allowed ‘ourselves’ to define & characterize this entity.
    ‘Our’ inability to reconfigure & reevaluate the ‘metrics’ which ‘we’ use to ‘measure’ that which opposes us continues to impede & ‘trip up’ our efforts.
    “Assessing the proper response to a given threat is a tough balancing act, one at which the West will have to become adept.”
    At the very least the articles author appears to have, if nothing else, an intuitive grasp of The Problem. That’s ‘Light Years’ more than most of ‘whats’ been rambling around in this ‘ethosphere’ of discourse & ‘thoughts’ on ‘the subject.’

  • mike merlo says:

    @Brandt
    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • M.H says:

    Just a reminder, August the seventh is the fifteenth anniversary of the 1998 East Africa embassies attacks, also this date is the end of Ramadan.

  • mike merlo says:

    @M.H
    you might want to check with the National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, on the East African Embassy affair(s). Her ‘comments’ on the event(s) were strange to say the least let alone kinda creepy. Some of the ‘comments’ on her response were rather telling also.

  • . says:

    Could al Qaeda be disseminating disinformation?

  • Bill Baar says:

    @ Mike Merlo…links please. All I’m finding are references to Rice’s role but not her quoted words.

  • wallbangr says:

    @ mike merlo: the zzzzzzzzzz [raspberry? snoring?] comment may have been your first ever post without air quotes. I think you are slipping 😉

  • mike merlo says:

    @Bill Baar
    I’ll search the net also. Its kind of cumbersome though. One has to do an ‘Archive’ search of Newspapers & other publications. If I’m not to lazy I might be able to ‘dig up’ some old article ‘cut outs’ from Media outlets that I cataloged for my own reference. One thing that brought Rice to my attention was when Sec Of State Clinton brought Richard Holbrooke into the mix. In the aftermath of the East African Embassy bombings it was reported that Rice & Holbrooke had a rather ‘testy’ exchange.
    @wallbangr
    well with one foot in the grave & my other on a block of ice such occurrence’s(slipping) are certainly within range of unplanned clown stunts on my part

  • JT says:

    I was angry when the administration focused on an anti-Muslim film instead of the attackers in Benghazi, Libya. Freedom of speech is vitally important, and the attack on our consulate and murder of US citizens was not justified in any way. I was outraged when I found out that even that lousy focus was a lie.
    Now, I wonder if we are over-reacting to a threat (reminder: threats and actual attacks have occurred numerous times, with only Benghazi, Fort Hood and Boston successful ones to my memory – Christmas and Times Square bombers were just incompetent). Time will tell, but, as someone said on TV, discretion may be the better part of valor, but not when discretion turns to retreat. In this case, we seem to be running for the hills. Not good for the only super power left (unless you count Russia and China).
    I was heartened when I learned that at least one ship of marines is off the Yemen shore just in case they are needed. That appears to be the lone case of potential offense these days. Outside the norm of drones, which have been going on for years now, greatly accelerated under the current administration.
    Final note: Ten years ago, we were fighting al Qaeda and others in Afghanistan and Iraq (who came there to fight Americans). Today, al Qaeda is active in several more countries, between 20 and 30 depending on the source. Among these are obvious examples of Yemen (where the USS Cole was attacked, by the way), Libya, Syria, and much of northern Africa. Al Qaeda’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan today is under-reported at best, which makes it difficult to know whether it is decreasing or increasing. A constant wild card is the nuclear weapon armed Pakistan. And, by the way, the chemical weapons Syria has and has actually used recently . . . .
    Perhaps the administration is just “distracted” by North Korea and Iran activities.

  • KM says:

    Iraq: reporting in open sources suggests there were almost 600 incidents involving ‘militants’ in Iraq in July – that is attacks and security force action against them. So real numbers are probably even higher.
    This included a huge number of car bombs (VBIEDs) – around 100 – and around 50 suicide attacks. Iraq very much remains terrorism central.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis