Al Qaeda threat? US embassy closings signal it has changed, not disappeared.

Despite US successes against Al Qaeda's 'center' in Pakistan, the terror organization's affiliates have found fertile territory for growth elsewhere in the Middle East, experts caution.

Nir Elias/Reuters
A pedestrian walks past the US embassy in Tel Aviv on Monday. The United States extended embassy closures by a week in the Middle East and Africa as a precaution on Sunday after an alleged al-Qaeda threat that US lawmakers said was the most serious in years.

The killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and the absence of any Al Qaeda-hatched terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11 may have lulled Americans into dismissing Al Qaeda as a bygone threat.

But the State Department’s extension Sunday of the closings of nearly a dozen US embassies and consulates across the Middle East – with the addition to the list of several diplomatic facilities in Africa – plus an increasingly specific focus on Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen as the central source of the current threat, have many terrorism experts cautioning that claims of the terrorist organization’s retreat and even demise were premature.

A list of factors – from the post-Arab Spring chaos in the Middle East to the Obama administration’s successful but much-hated drone-strike wars in Pakistan and Yemen – have led to what these experts say is certainly a different but no less lethal Al Qaeda than the one that attacked the US on its soil 12 years ago.

“Those who have been claiming Al Qaeda has been defeated or is on its death bed either have bad analysis or have been dishonest with the American people,” says Bill Roggio, editor of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, which tracks and analyzes what it calls the “global war on terror.”

Citing the regions where Al Qaeda has active affiliates, and which in many cases even the US government says are expanding in size and reach, Mr. Roggio adds, “How can you have a group that’s expanding its footprint and is adding fighters where it’s established, and say it’s being defeated?”

Others say there is no doubt that the “old” Al Qaeda with its core of leadership in Pakistan has been “depleted” in recent years. But they add that whatever setbacks the group has suffered at its center have been largely offset by the opportunities that opened up elsewhere as a result of upheaval across the Middle East and North Africa.

“The Arab Spring has engendered a lot of chaos across the Arab world and broader Middle East, and Al Qaeda thrives on chaos,” says Bruce Riedel, a leading terrorism analyst who is director of the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project.

“Since the first sparks of the Arab Spring two and a half years ago, we’ve seen a number of the region’s authoritarian regimes come tumbling down,” says Mr. Riedel, who was a senior terrorism adviser to the last four presidents. Al Qaeda affiliates “weren’t able to operate in the old police states of the Arab world,” he says. But pointing to Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and even Egypt, Riedel adds, “Now we’re seeing that they are.”

Riedel says he took particular note of the recent large jailbreaks by Al Qaeda prisoners in Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya, and adds that such actions in rapid succession, coming on top of the past month’s spike in Al Qaeda-originating violence in Iraq and successes in Syria, can’t help but suggest Al Qaeda’s resurgence.

Still, such examples have led some terrorism experts to conclude that the new Al Qaeda affiliates are focused on local insurgencies and local goals – establishing strict Islamist states in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, for example – and have retrenched from the “old” Al Qaeda’s quest to strike the US and other Western powers at home.

But Riedel and others say it would be a grave mistake to draw that conclusion.

“I think we have to take Al Qaeda’s leadership and the leaders of the affiliates at their word, and reading what they say, they say they have a global agenda,” says Riedel. He also cites last January’s deadly attack by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on an Algerian gas plant. One of AQIM’s reasons for attacking the plant was the large number of Western workers there, he says. 

The Long War Journal’s Roggio notes that it was less than four years ago that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) dispatched a terrorist who attempted to detonate a bomb in his underwear on a flight over Detroit. “Had that bomb gone off over Detroit,” Roggio says, “would we even be having this conversation about whether or not Al Qaeda still wants to attack the US?”

Some terrorism experts point to the closings of US diplomatic facilities across the Middle East and parts of Africa and cite that as evidence that a weakened Al Qaeda has of necessity pulled back to attempting to hit targets in the region where it remains active. But Roggio responds to such arguments by citing Al Qaeda’s track record – in particular between the group’s first attempt at a strike on the World Trade Center in 1993, and the attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

“If you look at the eight-year time lag between the two World Trade Center attacks, you can see by what they were doing that they weren’t pulling back from attacking US interests,” he says. The eight-year period included the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, and the August 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa.

But the second (and much more elaborate) attack on the World Trade Center proves that Al Qaeda never gave up on that goal and used the eight years in between to refine its plan of attack, he says.

Roggio cautions that a similar “if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed” motivation could be part of efforts by a Saudi citizen thought to be AQAP’s chief bomb maker to devise ingenious new ways to get bombs (and suicide bombers) past the best security to the heart of key US interests.

The Saudi, Ibrahim al-Asiri, whose fingerprints were found on the “underwear bomb” that failed to detonate over Detroit, is thought to be experimenting with new failsafe bombs – to be surgically implanted in the suicide bomber, for example – and to be training a class of bomb makers to take over for him should the US succeed in taking him out with a drone strike (The US once believed it had succeeded, with a 2011 strike).

Brookings’s Riedel sounds another cautionary note for Americans who might have thought Al Qaeda was a threat of the past. He notes that much of the success at “depleting” Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan is a result of US pressure – but he notes that whatever success the US has had could quickly be reversed if that pressure subsides as a result of the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from next-door Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

Reduce the US presence and focus “and we can expect a rapid regeneration of Al Qaeda in Pakistan,” Riedel says. And no one has much doubt about where Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan would like to carry out a successful attack.

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