So, what did we learn from last week’s embassy closings? That Al Qaeda has a psychological advantage over American policymakers by creating enormous diplomatic and political disruption simply by communicating. This is what has become of America’s disjointed, almost incoherent response to terrorism, and it is worrying.
This past weekend, the U.S. reopened 18 of the 20 embassies and diplomatic posts closed at the beginning of August due to threats from Al Qeada. Only the embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, and a U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, which was closed later in the week due to a separate threat, will remain closed. It was a remarkable decision — closing so many embassies at once in response to a threat from al Qaeda is unprecedented — and one that offers many lessons for future policymakers. Namely, that such a dramatic overreaction actually helps Al Qaeda.
By publicly announcing that a high-level “conference call” communication had been intercepted (Daily Beast quoted a source describing it as the “Legion of Doom”), the administration revealed a critical edge it had over Al Qaeda communications that is now obsolete. Whether it was a courier or a non-phone “call,” or some combination (it remains unclear), the public leaks alert Ayman al-Zawahiri that one of his communications methods has been compromised.
After Osama bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan were struck by U.S. cruise missiles in August of 1998, the Al Qaeda godfather abruptly turned off his satellite phone. Reports had circulated for several years beforehand that his phone had been compromised but bin Laden hadn’t modified his behavior in a significant way until the ’98 missile strike suggested his location was compromised. He never used a satellite phone again. By the time his villa in Abbottabad was raided in 2011, bin Laden was long off the grid, using couriers to load messages onto a thumb drive to send emails.
But will Zawahiri use this supposedly compromised communication system ever again? “I don’t believe it will cause Al Qaeda to be more cautious in the future,” said Will McCants, a fellow at the Brookings Saban Center and director of its project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “It was already very cautious and the alleged conference call was a major break with that pattern.”
Yet the scale of the American response — closing so many embassies — suggests that it was that very break with established patterns that worried policymakers. Al-Zawahiri issued an order to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the founder of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to carry out an unspecified attack. AQAP is based in Yemen, so closing the U.S. embassy there (and keeping it closed longer) makes sense. Conceivably, closing nearby embassies in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Sudan, Somalia, or elsewhere in the immediate region can make sense.
But the list of closed embassies wasn’t limited to logical choices for attacks. Closing stations in Madagascar, Burundi and Rwanda doesn’t make any immediate sense, based on what’s known publicly. The closure of Embassy Port Louis in Mauritius baffled many analysts — was AQAP really going to fly 2,600 miles into the outer reaches of the Indian Ocean to set off a bomb when there are a dozen perfectly good targets much closer?
Despite several attempts to strike at the U.S., including the 2009 underwear bomb, the 2010 printer cartridge bomb and a second bombing plot broken up early in its planning phase, AQAP is almost entirely focused first on dominating Yemen. The U.S. government has struggled to respond to that threat effectively.
“The U.S. is in a defensive crouch in Yemen,” Gregory Johnsen, author of the book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, told Defense One. “They’ve gone so far in their terrorism risk aversion that it will be difficult to ever carry out a positive agenda.”
That could explain the broad reaction to what sounded like a focused threat by a country-specific Al Qaeda franchise. But it’s not the only explanation.
Privately, senior officials suggest they’re anxious to avoid another attack similar to Benghazi. When U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens died in a coordinated Al Qaeda attack on a diplomatic outpost and CIA station, a political scandal in Washington followed. President Obama would gain little by placing embassies at risk of a surprise attack, but risks little by preventively closing them. “Basically, there’s no reason not to overreact,” one official said on the condition of anonymity.
There is another undeniable aspect to the embassy closures. While few in the administration will admit it, leaking such extensive details about what was clearly a sensitive intelligence operation also happens to create a public justification for the NSA’s expansive surveillance apparatus.
In the long run, U.S. embassy closures embolden Al Qaeda. Inflating the supposed reach of a local group like AQAP to encompass all of the Middle East, most of East Africa and a big part of North Africa could actually turn them into a bigger threat. This happened with Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who was killed in an American drone strike in Yemen in 2011. “Awlaki hadn’t even explicitly supported al Qaeda until 2009,” Johnsen explains. “And in 2010, as the U.S. kept pushing him as a dangerous threat, AQAP promoted him up through the ranks because they thought he was gaining traction in the West.”
He continued, “It was basically free advertising for AQAP.”
Moreover, it shows what “chatter” can accomplish. Terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argues that al Qaeda “was focused on undermining its enemies’ economies.” They adapted, he said, “focusing on what some members call the ‘strategy of a thousand cuts.’”
The open online gloating by jihadis over the embassy closures began almost immediately. “We hope to hear more of such psychological warfare,” one wrote, “even if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground.”
By reacting in such a broad way, the White House has raised the stakes on the next round of high-level Al Qaeda chatter.
“The U.S. government is likely privy to many half-baked plots, most of which don’t transpire,” McCants said. “Because it knows of the plots’ existence, it has to take each one seriously or risk public backlash should a plot get through.”