Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the State Department’s response to an alleged terrorist threat this past Friday. The State Department issued a travel alert to all Americans traveling abroad and even went so far as to close 21 foreign embassies over the weekend, 19 of which will remain closed through this week. Although the embassies that are now closed are located mostly in the Middle East and North Africa, the travel alert covers Americans traveling to all parts of the globe.
The threat itself was vague, referencing a terrorist attack against “western interests” instead of the United States directly. According to Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY), “[t]he assumption is that it’s probably going to happen in the Middle East, but there’s no guarantee of that at all.” The government seems to be treating it as a direct threat against American citizens. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the response stemmed from a “significant threat stream” and that “we are taking it seriously.” The travel alert covers everything from mass transit to railways to maritime services, even though we usually think of air travel (which is obviously included in the alert) first.
The most alarming parts of this story are claims that the information causing this response is similar to “chatter” picked up by the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the weeks leading up to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Government agencies seem to agree that the threat is coming from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula. This is the same group that was responsible for the failed “underwear bombing” over Detroit back in 2009, as well as a failed assassination attempt against the Saudi intelligence chief that involved surgically implanting a bomb inside the suicide bomber’s body.
It’s been suggested that al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch may be responding to increased drone strikes by the U.S. military that have killed a significant number of the terrorist group’s leaders in the past few years, including the well-publicized killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric that played a role in multiple attacks on the West. Despite the targeting of al-Qaeda leaders, experts maintain that al-Qaeda is as strong as ever. The terrorist organization seems to keep moving away from centralized leadership in favor of separate, regional factions with semi-independent leadership. Seth G. Jones, an expert on terrorism at the RAND Corporation, stated, “This is the new [al-Qaeda]. It is better understood as a loose movement, rather than a single organization.” This makes their movements and communications much harder to detect and even harder to track. It’s also next to impossible to determine when and where a terrorist attack might occur, which explains the blanket alert on travel abroad.
Another interesting aspect of this story is that the NSA has been credited for detecting the threat. I absolutely hate to bring politics into the mix when we’re facing a terrorist threat, but some members of Congress seem to be using the incident to justify the NSA’s surveillance programs. Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) stated, “this is a good indication of why [surveillance powers] are so important.” I’m by no means saying that I don’t think the NSA was the agency that detected the threat, but it’s interesting that Congress is hurrying to boost the NSA’s reputation. In the end, it doesn’t really matter which government entity picked up on the terrorist threat. It just matters that we did. I doubt that most Americans with travel plans will heed the warning, but it’s good to know that the government is doing what it can to protect the public from terrorist attacks. This will obviously be a developing story over the next few weeks and we’ll be sure to update as we get more information.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research