Washington – U.S. officials insisted Tuesday that extraordinary security measures for nearly two dozen diplomatic posts were to thwart an “immediate, specific threat,” a claim questioned by counterterrorism experts, who note that the alert covers an incongruous set of nations from the Middle East to an island off the southern coast of Africa.
Analysts don’t dispute the Obama administration’s narrative that it’s gleaned intelligence on a plot involving al Qaida’s most active affiliate, the Yemen-based Arabian Peninsula branch. That would explain why most U.S. posts in the Persian Gulf are on lockdown, including the U.S. embassy in Yemen, which on Tuesday airlifted most of its personnel to Germany in an “ordered departure,” the government’s euphemism for an evacuation.
But how, then, does it make sense for the State Department to close embassies as far afield as Mauritius or Madagascar, where there’s been no visible jihadist activity? And why is it that countries that weathered numerous terrorist attacks – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – were excluded or allowed to reopen quickly?
At Tuesday’s State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there were plans to keep 19 posts closed to the public through Saturday. But she had no answers when a reporter asked: “How did the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean get into this?”
“We make decisions post by post,” Psaki said. “That’s something that is constantly evaluated at a high level through the interagency process.”
If ordinary Americans are confused, they’re in good company. Analysts who’ve devoted their careers to studying al Qaida and U.S. counterterrorism strategy can’t really make sense of it, either. There’s general agreement that the diffuse list of potential targets has to do with either specific connections authorities are tracking, or places that might lack the defenses to ward off an attack. Beyond that, however, even the experts are stumped.
Take this sampling of reactions from prominent al Qaida observers:
“It’s crazy pants – you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism who this month joins the Brookings Saban Center as the director of its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
“We just showed our hand, so now they’re obviously going to change their position on when and where” to attack, said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was part of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden for years.
“It’s not completely random, but most people are, like, ‘Whaaat?’ ” said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net
“I’m not going to argue that it’s not willy-nilly, but it’s hard for me to come down too critical because I simply don’t know their reasoning,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research institute.
In the absence of specifics about what the Obama administration refers to as a “specific threat,” seasoned analysts were reluctant to comment because there’s so little insight into the government’s decision-making. Instead, a mix of speculation and conspiracy theory fills the void.
Online pundits parsed the timing: Did it have to do with President Barack Obama’s birthday Sunday? (Doubtful.) Or the 15th anniversary of terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa? (But neither of the two targeted embassies is closed this time.) Perhaps the closings were timed to the Islamic holiday coming up this weekend? (Posts in Muslim countries would be closed, anyway.)
Self-appointed sleuths also tried – in vain – to divine a pattern in the locations of the closings. The Persian Gulf closures are understandable, as is the one in Djibouti, home to a U.S. drone base.
But Madagascar, best known for the eponymous animated movie about zoo animals? One theory was that it’s linked to the mysterious 2007 assassination of bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, an al Qaida founder and financier. News reports at the time said that up to 30 gunmen – thought to be U.S. special forces – burst into Khalifa’s home near a gemstone factory he owned, killed him in his bedroom and made off with his computer and other items.
A pretty tenuous connection, but at least there’s an established al Qaida link to that theory. Not so with Mauritius, an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa.
One tweet making the rounds in the counterterrorism Twitter sphere suggested that al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula “used to have a director of external ops, one of whose overseas recruits was from Mauritius.” That claim – based on the IP address of a user in a now-defunct jihadist forum – was impossible to corroborate.
“There have been cases where jihadis have shown up in random countries,” Zelin said. “But who really knows, honestly?”
Even darker scenarios were floated: Did recent al Qaida prison breaks free veteran fighters who’d be eager to carry out a sophisticated, multi-country attack? Was the U.S. government drumming up a threat to justify the extensive surveillance network of the National Security Agency? Or, conversely, was it jihadists planting a decoy threat now that they’ve been tipped off to the existence of the NSA programs?
Analysts said they’d hold out for hard facts before commenting.
“I’ve been ignoring all of it because there’s an infinite range of possibilities,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “It would be like speculating on the reboot of the ‘Star Wars’ series.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong number of attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. There were two. It also gave the wrong title for Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism.