Broad U.S. terror alert mystifies experts; ‘It’s crazy pants,’ one says

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

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.

Email: hallam@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @HannahAllam

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

  • Suicide bombers kill 15 at north Nigerian college

    Two suicide bombers killed at least 15 students Wednesday at a government college in Nigeria's northern city of Kano, police and emergency officials said.

  •  
FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 file photo, smoke, dust and debris rise over Gaza City after an Israeli strike. The Palestinian economy is expected to contract for the first time in seven years in 2014, shrinking by 4 percent, the result of the recent Gaza war, continued Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on Palestinian trade and a drop in foreign aid, the World Bank said Tuesday. The downturn is expected to be sharpest in war-battered Gaza, with a projected drop of 15 percent, the bank said.

    UN says building materials to Gaza may quadruple

    A United Nations official says he expects the amount of building materials entering Gaza to quadruple in the coming months, as the first details emerged from a deal reached on the territory's post-war reconstruction.

  •  
Rescue workers search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed building belonging to the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, Nigeria Wednesday, Sept, 17. 2014. A Nigerian televangelist whose followers across Africa and beyond believe he has powers of healing and prophesy is now beset by crisis after one of his buildings collapsed, killing at least 70 people amid allegations that church officials didn’t cooperate with rescuers. The exact circumstances of the disaster as well as the death toll remained unclear on Wednesday, five days after the disaster at a multistory guesthouse and shopping area for T.B. Joshua's Synagogue, Church of All Nations, on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital.

    Nigerian preacher faces scrutiny after disaster

    A Nigerian televangelist whose exuberant followers across Africa and beyond believe he has powers of healing and prophesy is now under scrutiny after one of his buildings collapsed, killing at least 70 people.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category