Thursday, August 8, 2013


Analysis:Is U.S. overreacting to terror threats with massive embassy closures?

WASHINGTON, - Recent days have seen the United States close more than a dozen of diplomatic facilities worldwide, but it remains unknown whether a threat will ever materialize.

The closings occurred after U.S. intelligence agencies picked up an unusual amount of chatter from militants, sparking fears of an attack on Americans or U.S. interests somewhere in the world in the coming weeks.

Appearing on NBC' s Late Night with Jay Leno Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama said the decision to temporarily close several diplomatic facilities worldwide was not an overreaction.

"The first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed is making sure that I'm doing everything I can to keep Americans safe," he told host Jay Leno.

Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office, told Xinhua the threats must be credible, as U.S. allies such as Britain and France have also ordered precautionary measures.

Other governments' reactions suggest they are most concerned about a possible strike in Yemen, he noted.

Indeed, Washington's evacuation of personnel from that country, Tuesday's warning for Americans to leave, and increased drone strikes there suggest more information has come to light, placing the central focus there, White said.

Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has become by far the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate, demonstrating an ability to mount sizable operations within Yemen in recent years, White said, pointing to a deadly infiltration of the army and seizure of a portion of southern Yemen for a lengthy period.

The closure of so many other U.S. embassies suggests early information on the precise target was iffy, he added.

The effectiveness of such countermeasures has been a mixed bag: in some cases attacks have not materialized, but governments have disrupted terrorist planning in others. In this case, the shifting periods of U.S. closures and the more recent focus on Yemen suggests information has been refined somewhat.

One U.S. advantage is that al-Qaeda's central core has suffered such heavy losses that it must rely on distant affiliates like AQAP or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to bear most of the weight of operations, forcing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to communicate in ways that often have been detected by U.S. and Western intelligence services, White said.

Private intelligence company Stratfor argued on its website Tuesday that while the terror threat persists, many warnings are issued for threats that never materialize.

Warnings can be invalidated by bad information, deliberate disinformation or postponed or canceled plots. That is especially true of global, non-specific warnings, such as those against U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Asia in mid-2001, Stratfor contended.

In the post-Benghazi political environment, warnings issued by the U.S. government are likely evidence that Washington is acting out of an overabundance of caution -- no politician or bureaucrat wants to experience another Benghazi, Stratfor argued.

"Overreacting is seen as preferable to the risks of failing to warn at all. It is also important to remember that practically, the threat is more acute in places where al-Qaeda franchise groups are active, such as Yemen and Libya, than it is globally," Stratfor contended.

Some have argued the United States has eased pressure on militants after killing al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 and amid the administration's focus on domestic issues.

"I don't think we've shifted to a soft strategy, but I think we are wavering a little in our willingness to stay really focused on the problem systematically. And that's why our attention to Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen, to Libya is not quite what I would prefer," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Xinhua.

Still, getting more deeply involved in the stabilization of such countries is no easy task, he said.

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