Did The White House Overstate the Al Qaeda Threat?
Policy + Politics

Did The White House Overstate the Al Qaeda Threat?

Reuters TV

Last week, the international police force INTERPOL issued a rare warning that recent prison breaks in Pakistan, Libya and Iraq all were related to al Qaeda activity.

“With suspected Al Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts, which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the INTERPOL alert requests the Organization's 190 member countries' assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events are coordinated or linked," the group warned in a statement.

Soon after, the United States shut down 21 embassies across North Africa and the Middle East. The United Kingdom, Canada and other Western allies soon followed suit.

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A number of the embassies closed have subsequently been reopened. But it is still unclear exactly what the nature of the threat was, how close al Qaeda came to an attack, and the composition of the intelligence that prompted the closings.

Two things are crystal clear in the wake of the threat. First, al Qaeda is celebrating the closures as a victory over the West.

“God is great! America is in a condition of terror and fear from Al Qaeda," a jihadist reportedly wrote in an online forum. Another wrote, "The mobilization and security precautions are costing them billions of dollars. We hope to hear more of such psychological warfare, even if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground."

The threat was also serious enough to provoke warnings from both sides of the political aisle. Republican Peter King (R-NY) said that the threat was specific and warranted swift action.

"The intelligence that I saw here was at least as powerful as anything I have seen since 9/11," King, no fan of the Obama administration, said Sunday morning on Face the Nation.  "Probably, the closest to this would have been the liquid explosive plot out of London in 2006. But this was very credible. It was corroborated and it spoke of a massive attack and to me it was the right thing to do."

There is no doubt the Obama administration is displaying an abundance of caution after the Benghazi attack. However, new questions are being raised about the quality of the intelligence that caused the embassy closures. There are also growing questions about whether the threat was serious enough to warrant the closures. And there is skepticism about reports of an Al Qaeda conference call.  

But it’s also raising questions about whether the Obama administration has done enough to eradicate the al Qaeda threat. The terrorist group has been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has reemerged in the Middle East and Africa despite efforts to contain it. 

Initial reports on the nature of the threat indicated that U.S. intelligence had overheard chatter between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda and the leader of al Qaeda's Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Zawahiri reportedly told someone to "do something," which promoted the threat.

The timing of the intelligence win provided a boost to NSA, an agency under fire for the nature of its surveillance programs. The White House was able to use the intelligence to justify the existence of the program. But the timing is also convenient, coming as the debate over the NSA rages. Subsequent reports raised additional doubts about the veracity of the leaks.

The Daily Beast, based on anonymous sources, reported that U.S. intelligence officials intercepted a "conference call" between al Qaeda commanders from across Africa and the Arabian Peninsula: they called it the Legion of Doom. The report indicated these leaders believed the call was secure.

The national security community met the Daily Beast story with skepticism. One reason for the skepticism—the story assumed that al-Zawahiri would speak by phone, despite widespread reports that the NSA was listening to international calls.

It also assumed that all al Qaeda leaders spoke a common language. This is difficult to believe, given that most al Qaeda commanders are poorly educated. The report prompted Mohammed Albasha, Yemen's spokesman in Washington, to Tweet, "I doubt #alQaeda can coordinate a 20+ conference call with operatives from multiple nations, what language did they all speak?"

Whether the call occurred or not, the swift closure of the embassies continues to fuel critics who accuse Obama of going soft on national security. Sen. John McCain accused the president of being complacent in confronting the threat. 

“"You can’t say you’ve decimated the core of al Qaeda and at same time have to close these posts," McCain said, adding that the White House has shown a "lack of leadership.”

It now remains to be seen if the jail break of incarcerated terrorists will rebuild that core.