Did the US do the right thing by shutting down 19 embassies and consulates this week in response to an unspecified "terror threat?" While some have called the decision "crazy pants," I think that's unfair.
It's conceivable that the decision was appropriate based on what the US government thinks it knows. And it's also conceivable that it was an enormous overreaction. Since we don't know what exactly it is the government overheard or was told by informants (or both), it's impossible to fairly judge the decision.
It's highly unlikely that Al Qaeda and affiliated groups could pull off simultaneous or near-simultaneous attacks in 17 countries. The amount of planning and coordination such a plot would require, involving hundreds of operatives, dramatically increases the risk of exposure before it can be carried out.
But what is believable is that the US could be convinced that something was in the works in one or a few of these locations – the Obama administration was most worried about Yemen – without being certain of which ones. So in certain circumstances, the minor inconvenience of the nearly unprecedented embassy closures could seem like a bargain when weighed against the costs of even one successful attack. Consider the political fallout of the attack on the large CIA operation in Benghazi, Libya, last September, and you'll see why an "abundance of caution" approach might appeal.
What does the US know? We simply don't know. Wednesday, The Daily Beast had a rather strange scoop. It cited three unnamed officials as saying that the embassy closures were prompted by a conference call involving Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda leader in Yemen Nasir al-Wuhayshi, and about 19 other people spread across the Middle East and Africa.
Yesterday, the authors clarified that it wasn't a "conference call" as typically understood. Their point appears to be that the participants weren't using phones, but we'll assume for now that they were talking, perhaps over an Internet service like Skype. The authors, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin, explained that the lack of specificity about the precise type of conference was withheld at the request of their sources.
But that brings us back to the strange part. If a conference call of some sort took place, then the participants know full well how they did it. And the moment they see a news report that says the United States was listening in to the call, they're going to shut that means of communication down. So instead of a theoretical intelligence gold mine being kept up and running, the leaks have killed off eyes and ears that we appeared to have on some of the most wanted terrorists in the world. And if the sources are to be believed, they also appear to have compromised a courier between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi.
Why would anyone in the US government with knowledge of such an operation put that out there?
I'm having trouble coming up with a reason – though it's possible perhaps that the US government knew that their eavesdropping technique was already compromised. And then there's the simple strangeness of Zawahiri putting himself at such risk for exposure, with all those militants getting together on some kind of electronic communications at a moment when public discussion is at an all time high of the extent of National Security Agency (NSA) tools to sift through reams of data.
One argument put forth is that Zawahiri's feeling confident and thinks he has a large measure of control over Al Qaeda's various global affiliates. Mr. Rogin made that argument himself yesterday on Fox.
"I think the significance of this is that it shows despite what we may have heard that the Al Qaeda core is diminished – this is something the administration likes to say often – as it turns out they're very much alive and well and very much in control and in touch with the affiliates," he said. "It's a much more cohesive organization than we previously realized."
"The working assumption had been that Al Qaeda was operating what you might call franchises, independent operations that had little connection to the headquarters back in Pakistan and were basically doing what they wanted when they wanted with some top level approval. What we're seeing now as an evolution of Al Qaeda into a new phase that is actually much more integrated than it had previously been. There is a lot of top down management.... we're seeing that it's not really on its heels at all."
I take these claims with large grains of salt. Whether Rogin was told the alleged complete contents of that call isn't clear – he hasn't said one way or another. Just running off what he and Lake reported, there is no evidence that these assertions are true. A group of people with similar interests got on a conference call to plan or discuss ... something. Does that mean that Zawahiri has the power to order attacks across the world? Not by itself.
The history of Al Qaeda's core, under Osama Bin Laden and now under Zawahiri, who was second in command until Bin Laden's death, has been one of difficulty in controlling its affiliates.
Consider the last major crest for jihadis in the Middle East in Iraq in the middle of the past decade, when the US-led occupation energized a Sunni Arab insurgency that allowed Al Qaeda allies to create a beachhead for themselves in the country, particularly in Anbar Province. The early lion for Al Qaeda in Iraq was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who was eventually killed in a US airstrike in June 2006.
Under Zarqawi's leadership, Al Qaeda in Iraq killed Iraqi Shiites and Sunni Arabs it deemed collaborators, and delighted in filming its members beheading and murdering helpless captives. It was not an effective hearts and minds strategy, something that Zawahiri was well aware of.
In a letter to Zarqawi in 2005, Zawahiri took him to task: "If we look at the two short-term goals, which are removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible, then we will see that the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy – after the help and granting of success by God – is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries," he wrote to Zarqawi.
Zawahiri, at pains to reassure Zarqawi that his own hatred for Shiites burned as brightly as his own, warned the younger militant that he was losing the Iraqi street with his murderous sectarian rampages, his bombing of mosques, and the "slaughtering of hostages," as he put it. Zawahiri argued that success for their agenda was being sharply undermined by Zarqawi's actions and urged him to focus attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.
The response? He was completely ignored, and in February 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq bombed the Askariyah Shrine, revered by Iraq's Shiites, touching off the bloodiest phase of Iraq's sectarian conflict and setting the stage for Al Qaeda in Iraq's defeat.
The simple fact of the matter is that it's hard to control people who are fighting and dying in their own countries. In Syria, the local Al Qaeda affiliate has been involved in murderous rampages of its own, once again undermining its local support.
The events of the past week indicate neither strength nor weakness. There have as yet been no attacks, though the US has killed nine alleged militants with drone strikes in Yemen in the past few days. It's been years since a major international attack has been successfully carried out under the direction of Al Qaeda's core. Until there's evidence that state of affairs has changed, it doesn't make sense to ascribe to Zawahiri abilities he has not been able to demonstrate.