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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