The unprecedented closures of almost two dozen American embassies will continue for almost another week, the State Department announced yesterday, following intelligence that pointed to a massive al-Qaeda plot against American diplomatic facilities. The decision continues to raise eyebrows even as members of Congress tell the media that the threat is the most serious they’ve seen in years. CBS News reports this morning that the threat level is the highest since 2006, and will continue to be until there is “clarity” on the actual plot:
In these cases, it’s difficult to second-guess the security reaction without knowing what the intelligence actually states. Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill apparently agree with the assessment, which indicates that it’s clear enough to remove the usual politics from the calculations. However, this news comes as quite a shock after hearing the Obama administration brag throughout 2012 that “al-Qaeda is on the run.” To put this threat into perspective, the US has never had to close so many embassies at once in the face of a security threat — not even during wartime against actual existential threats such as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. This action makes it very clear that the rumors of AQ’s demise were greatly exaggerated.
Jeffrey Goldberg wonders whether the threat now isn’t being greatly exaggerated, too — or at least the American response to it:
It seems as if al-Qaeda, or its Arabian Peninsula branch, has succeeded in terrorizing the United States of America again, but this time without – as of this writing – detonating an ounce of C4. It doesn’t strike me as a wise idea to preemptively shutter 21 different American embassies across the Middle East and North Africa in response to NSA-collected terrorist chatter. What message does this post-Benghazi, “don’t say we didn’t tell you” move send to the citizens of the Middle East, who, it is our hope, understand the United States to be a powerful and fearless country dedicated to openness and to the defeat of fanaticism? We have already muddied any message of fearlessness by turning our embassies into bunkers. Now, we are admitting that these bunkers aren’t safe. What next? Virtual embassies on Facebook? Ambassadors who never leave Washington?
The Administration tells us that the heightened threat of al-Qaeda terror extends through the end of the month. Is the State Department going to keep its diplomatic fortresses closed through September 1? Late this afternoon, State announced that 19 diplomatic posts are going to stay closed until August 10; others, including those in Baghdad, and Kabul, of all places, are scheduled to reopen Monday. It is unclear if these closings will be extended, or if the reopening embassies and consulates will again be closed. It could be that many of our diplomats — who, by the way, are still living in the target countries, just in less secure locations, generally, than embassy compounds – will not be at work for awhile.
Goldberg also notes the sudden reversal of the Obama administration on the health of AQ:
As a public service, let me translate this warning for you: “Dear U.S. citizen: So, it turns out that al-Qaeda has not been defeated. In fact, its operatives want to kill you. Mainly, they want to kill you if you happen to be in one of the following 21 countries. Also, by the way, they want to kill you in the U.S., but right now let’s not talk about that, and focus on the immediate threat. We don’t know where, when or how al-Qaeda is going to try to kill you – probably August, if it makes you feel any better. In the past, al-Qaeda terrorists have targeted planes, trains, and automobiles, as well as large buildings, and small buildings. Also, boats. Our suggestion is that you not leave your hotel. And stay out of the lobby! Lobbies are dangerous. Actually, come to think of it, al-Qaeda has also targeted hotels in the past, so maybe you should just leave your hotel now, but through the kitchen, or the service entrance. But try to avoid people, and also places where there are people, once you have left your hotel. If you want to come home, please do so, but just be very careful at the airport. Thank you for your attention to this matter.”
As Goldberg notes in his conclusion, the State Department had to issue its warnings after the threats surfaced. To refuse to do so for political purposes would have been criminal neglect had an attack materialized, and some believe that already happened once before — in Benghazi. But perhaps the threat and the current reaction to it would have been taken more seriously had the current administration not spent 2012 dancing on the grave of a terrorist group that turned out to be alive and well after all.