US intelligence agencies picked up on an al-Qaida plot to attack Western diplomatic delegations through surveillance technologies, members of Congress briefed on the matter said on Sunday.
That led to Washington issuing a worldwide travel alert on Friday warning Americans that al-Qaida may be planning attacks, and deciding to close 21 embassies and consulates on Sunday, located in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.
The US State Department on Sunday announced an extended closure of embassies and consulates "out of an abundance of caution."
The State Department stated that the move to extend closures was "not an indication of a new threat stream," but rather an effort to protect local religious customs for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan as well as the protection of embassy employees and visitors.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows for the collection of communications intelligence concerning targets outside the United States.
Telecom service providers are compelled by court orders to supply the relevant information, as in the recently uncovered programs housed in the National Security Agency.
The American public continues to debate the breadth of the surveillance programs, after Edward Snowden revealed their reach within the communications networks domestic to the United States.
Friday’s warning follows recent attacks on the US Embassy in Egypt and one on the US Mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.
Al-Qaida-linked jihadists are believed to be behind both attacks as well as a September 14, 2002, attack on the embassy in Tunis, Thomas Joscelyn reported on The Long War Journal website.
Joscelyn, a terrorism analyst specializing in al-Qaida and a senior editor of The Long War Journal as well as a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Sunday that many people in the US have been arguing that al-Qaida is dead, but this news demonstrates that they are wrong.
Reports indicate that the intelligence that led to the warning was above the level of general chatter and that it coincides with the naming of a new al-Qaida general manager.
Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appointed Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the Yemeni leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to the post, CNN reported on Saturday. This means Wuhayshi is now number two in the terrorist organization, a position held by Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi until a drone killed him in Pakistan in June 2012.
The move could be meant to help the organization remain focused in the Arab world and raise funds from Gulf states. Wuhayshi was Osama bin Laden’s private secretary during the latter’s time in Afghanistan, and then fled to Iran, where he was arrested and sent to Yemen in 2003.
Joscelyn said the number two position is hugely important because it “manages infrastructure and affiliates.”
It could be that “this plot is tied to his appointment as a big coming out party,” he said.
“The Arab Spring was said to be the death knell for al-Qaida, but this idea was false all along,” Joscelyn said.
“Just look at Syria, which has one of the most thriving al-Qaida affiliates on the planet – more fighters are there now than have been in any one location in a long time.”
Just because al-Qaida was not behind the Arab revolutions does not mean that al-Qaida is not smart and does not know how to take advantage of them, he added.
Some in the US sought to differentiate between the core jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan and their affiliates in other countries, Joscelyn said. Each affiliate has its unique history and development, but these “are not local nationalist movements that are disconnected from the global threat,” he said.
Many of these al-Qaida affiliates threaten the West, though it may not be their primary motive at this point, as they are mostly trying to seize territory, he said. But this is not less worrisome, he added.
Asked how effective US President Barack Obama’s drone strikes were, Joscelyn responded that they have been effective at taking out select commanders and dealing with immediate threats, but were a tactic, not a strategy.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates are probably gaining a greater presence than they have ever had on Israel’s borders, he said. Look at what is happening in Sinai, Gaza and Syria, and at al-Qaida logistical operations run out of Lebanon and Jordan and you see an organization that is far from dead, concluded Joscelyn.
Yoram Schweitzer, a terrorism expert at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the Post that the argument by the US administration that al-Qaida is on its last legs might have been connected to the American presidential election.
It was clearly too soon for such a definite declaration of al-Qaida’s demise, he said.
What we are seeing is what happens when the US withdraws from the region and from its war in Afghanistan, said Schweitzer, adding that al-Qaida and their affiliates are busy recruiting new people. “So they are long from finished,” he said.
Gary Schmitt, former executive director of the US president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed with the assessment that al-Qaida is not near its end.
“There is an obvious gap between the administration's repeated statements that the armed conflict with al- Qaida is in its final stages and daily reports of new affiliates popping up in Iraq, Syria and North Africa – the decision to close embassies, and the jail brakes of hundreds of new terrorists throughout the region,” Schmitt told the Post.
This is “just another sign of how feckless the administration has become when it relates to the Middle East,” he said.
Michael Wilner in Washington and the JPost.com staff contributed to this report.