x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

US decision to extend mission closures based on new intelligence on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

The US State Department says decision to extend the closures until Saturday is based on new intelligence regarding a threat reportedly emanating from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Taimur Khan reports

NEW YORK // The United States yesterday extended the closures of 19 US diplomatic missions concentrated mainly in the Arabian Gulf and East Africa until the end of the week, raising fears over the resiliency of Al Qaeda despite recent claims by Washington that it had significantly weakened the terrorist group.

The US State Department said its decision to extend the two-day closures, which were announced last week, was based on new intelligence regarding a threat reportedly emanating from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group's Yemen affiliate and its most active branch.

"We continue to refine our assessment of the threat, we continue ... to get new information and as we do so we'll evaluate our security needs going forward," state department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday. She would not say whether the new information was any more specific than the original intelligence.

On Sunday, US politicians and officials described the initial warnings as stemming from electronic "chatter" among senior AQAP militants, intercepted by US spy agencies. The intelligence indicated both a specific and credible threat, they said.

But the widespread closure of embassies indicated that Washington was unsure of where the attack may occur.

"The assumption is that it's probably most likely to happen in the Middle East," Representative Peter King told ABC News, but added that "it could basically be in Europe, it could be in the United States, it could be a series of combined attacks."

The apparent seriousness of the threat and its wide geographical range have raised concerns that despite a decade of US policies aimed at winning a so-called war on terror - including the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - extremist networks retain their ability to strike American interests.

It also underscored how the post-Arab Spring turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has given new space to diffuse groups affiliated or inspired by Al Qaeda. Militants, some with experience from fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, have found new impetus for their fight, and many have returned home to wage local struggles or plot against the West.

Extremist threats are now distributed between dozens of countries, from Yemen to Mali to Pakistan. Telling of the shifts, US embassies reopened in the two countries where the US fought ground wars over the past decade, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The US has to deal with a number of terror groups across multiple continents who are generally not coordinating with each other," terrorism analyst Seth G Jones told the New York Times. "This is the new Al Qaeda. It is better understood as a loose movement, rather than a single organisation."

In May, Mr Obama gave a speech at the National Defense University in which he described the country as "more secure" as a result of the war on terror. But he called for a change of direction in how the battle is fought.

"Today, Osama bin Laden is dead, and so are most of his top lieutenants. There have been no large-scale attacks on the United States," he said, while warning that the "nation is still threatened by terrorists" - many of them in smaller, more disparate extremist networks.

Yet some analysts warn that declaring even a partial victory against Al Qaeda may be premature.

"This stands in the face of [Mr Obama's speech]…it puts off the possibility of thinking of getting through this war," the director of Fordham University's Center on National Security, Karen Greenberg, said in an interview on public radio yesterday.

"How is it possible that this threat comes with such force after 12 years" of global counter-terrorism efforts? Ms Greenberg asked

The recent threat may also indicate the limitations of one of Washington's central counter-terrorism tools, drone strikes. Since the end of the George W Bush administration, the US has used the unmanned aircraft extensively to target senior AQAP figures in Yemen as well as militants in Pakistan.

"Part of the problem with the US approach is that it is centred on personalities: Awlaki, Asiri and now Wihayshi. Yet the group continues to grow", AQAP expert Gregory Johnsen wrote on his Twitter yesterday, referencing AQAP's known leaders, at least one of whom has been killed by US drones.

In Yemen in particular, the strikes targeting leaders have often killed civilians and have helped the group recruit new members. Analysts also say the over-reliance on drones has meant less focus on the much more complex underlying factors that have contributed to AQAP's growth.

The timing of the latest threat from Yemen, and the fact that US intelligence picked up on it through its massive, global electronic surveillance network, has also played into a domestic debate over the breadth of government surveillance networks.

Since details of the National Security Agency's widespread monitoring of the internet and collection of Americans' phone records was leaked in June by a former CIA employee and intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, there have been growing calls by lawmakers to limit what some argue is unconstitutional spying.

But Congressional supporters of the electronic spy programmes say the AQAP terror plot shows why such surveillance is necessary.

"Al Qaeda is on the rise in this part of the world and the NSA programme is proving its worth yet again," Sen Lindsey Graham told CNN on Sunday. Sen Graham was angered by the leak, arguing that publicising the programme could cause Al Qaeda to change the way it communicated.

But Ms Greenberg was more critical: "It's ironic that with all the NSA surveillance news they don't know with more specificity what the threat is".


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