Yemeni authorities claimed to have foiled a major Al Qaeda plot Wednesday, one that apparently involved a planned attack on Yemeni oil pipelines and ports that would have killed or held hostage any foreigners there.
It was, presumably, the same terrorist operation that prompted the State Department to ask for the Pentagon’s help in flying Americans out of Yemen Tuesday, to close 18 other American embassies and consulates in the region, and to issue a month-long travel alert to US citizens abroad.
The alerts and closures have led to widespread speculation about a potential resurgence of Al Qaeda, suddenly changing the conversation about National Security Administration (NSA) programs brought to light by leaker Edward Snowden. Senior US officials have noted that the Al Qaeda chatter was picked up by signals intelligence, which happens to be an NSA job.
The revelations – if not driven by a concerted effort to distract from the NSA’s data-collection controversies, as some of the more cynical commentators suggest – certainly offer a serendipitous opportunity to highlight the merits of NSA practices, analysts say.
But there skepticism in some quarters about whether everything is as it seems. Perhaps Al Qaeda was doing some manipulating of its own, intentionally letting its chatter be overheard to gauge US capabilities and responses, say some analysts, who emphasize that they are not suggesting a conspiracy theory. Rather, they posit that terrorists might have been testing the waters in the wake of the NSA leaks.
“The embassy shutdowns and the traveler warnings resulted from intercepts of terrorist communications devices – phones and computer links that the terrorists surely knew are being monitored,” notes Angelo Codevilla, a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.
This in turn was meant to trigger policymakers “fearful of being blamed for an attack on their watch preceded by such ‘chatter,’ ” Mr. Codevilla argues in a piece entitled “Manipulating the US Intelligence Community Shouldn’t Be This Easy” for the Library of Law and Liberty. “The lesson to be taken from all this,” he warns, is that the NSA is “at the mercy of any of its targets that wishes to feed it disinformation and then watch the US government’s self-discrediting reactions.”
In response to the overheard chatter, the US has launched four drone strikes in Yemen in the past 10 days, which US officials say have killed at least four Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives. These US strikes have been credited by terrorist leaders for helping to mobilize anti-American jihadist fighters in the region.
Many experts, however, question how much Al Qaeda would gain from such ruse.
Though there “certainly may be elements of the jihadist network that would create fake chatter,” the notion “that AQAP gave some kind of head fake to see how the US would respond to their move” is a stretch, says Thomas Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“They have much better things to do than potentially expose their members’ location through a fake operation that may not generate anything.” he adds. “I don’t think it was an effort by them to reveal how we would respond. We responded as we would in the past – but more forcefully.”
What’s more, as other Al Qaeda affiliates gain clout in Syria, AQAP has a vested interest in a big operation now to reassert its leadership within the movement, says Christopher Swift, adjunct professor of national security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
That’s particularly true since AQAP “hasn’t launched a major operation in over a year,” adds Dr. Swift. “Their internal operatives have been saying, ‘Now is the time to show we’re here.’ ”
Add to that “the intercepted chatter; and the fact that it has been a year since the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya; that it is the height of Ramadan; and that it is the 15-year anniversary of the bombings at Kenya and Tanzania,” he notes, “and you can understand why this would be something that would capture the State Department’s attention.”
But capturing the State Department's attention might have been the point of the chatter. AQAP has tried to goad the US into action before, analysts note.
The group’s Operation Hemorrhage, in which it planted printer bombs on two US cargo flights in 2010, was meant to hurt the US economy, according to senior Al Qaeda officials.
“Two Nokia mobiles, $150 each, two HP printers, $300 each, plus shipping, transportation, and other miscellaneous expenses add up to a total bill of $4,200,” read one article in Inspire, the Al Qaeda-affiliated magazine. “That is all that Operation Hemorrhage cost us.”
The group knew that the attack would likely kill two people – the pilots of the plane – but hoped it would force the US government to spent billions more on new screening measures.
Al Qaeda might see the closing of the US embassies in a similar way, regardless of the original intent.
“In light of AQAP’s intentions with Operation Hemorrhage, inducing widespread embassy closings may constitute a public relations victory for AQAP,” says Mr. Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that it all creates a “no win situation” for the US government.
“It would be a bold, risky, powerful statement for the US to say, ‘We’re not going to be cowed into silence. We are here to conduct business in these important countries and we’re not going to allow militants to force America to hit the pause button on our engagement with the world,’ ” he adds.
“That’s a bad thing. But another bad thing is diplomats coming home in flag-draped coffins.”