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Al Qaeda embassy threats: Sign of shrinking ambition? (+video)

Al Qaeda is growing, according to some measures, but as it evolves its focus is less on the American homeland than on striking interests abroad, like embassies, according to one study.

By Staff writer / August 4, 2013

The US embassy in Tel Aviv was closed as usual Sunday, but the threat of a terrorist attack led to the weekend closure of 21 US embassies and consulates in the Muslim world and a global travel warning to Americans, the first such alert since an announcement before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 strikes.

Ariel Schalit/AP

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[Updated 3:30 p.m.] The closure of 19 embassies Sunday and the issuing of a month-long global travel alert for all Americans abroad shows how Al Qaeda's threat to the United States has evolved since 9/11 – and how the US response has evolved, too.

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The closed embassies are all in an arc that runs from North Africa through the Middle East to Afghanistan, and the information suggests that the primary threat comes from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the Yemen-based Al Qaeda branch that many experts say is now the movement's strongest.

Officials with knowledge of the intelligence that led to the closures say the intercepts point to discussion of actual operations, not just typical chatter.

Some Obama administration critics have hailed the decision, with Rep. Peter King (R) of New York, who has been briefed on the threat, telling CNN: "I think the government is doing exactly the right thing here."

The closures are both a testament to Al Qaeda's persistent threat and perhaps also an indicator of how its aspirations have contracted since 9/11.

While Al Qaeda has by some measures become larger since 9/11, it has become less cohesive, according to a recent study by the RAND Corp., a defense and security consultancy. This means that the goals and capabilities of the various branches have shifted from attacking the American homeland to achieving narrower goals.

"They want to establish Islamic emirates in specific countries or regions, though they may be agnostic about a broader violent jihad," RAND terrorism expert Seth Jones said in congressional testimony last month.

One source interviewed by ABC News suggested that some American officials were worried about explosive devices surgically implanted into terrorists. AQAP, which launched the "underwear bomber" plot to destroy a plane on Christmas Day, 2009, is still trying to hit at the US aggressively.

But attacks on Western embassies in the Mideast would fit the broader profile of Al Qaeda's evolution.

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