The Counsel of Fear

Rachel George asks: “Is the Yemen Terror Threat Routine, Or Something Else Entirely?” The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi asks substantially the same question:


Yemen appeared to back away from claims it had foiled a grandiose plot, and some terror experts wondered if the U.S., which launched three more drone strikes, had been duped by Al Qaeda into closing its embassies.

And closed they were, in emphatic fashion, as ABC News emphasized in its breathless video report of C-17 airplanes evacuating everyone from Yemen — including the ambassador, who was described as “not returning any time soon.” The extent and urgency of the evacuations have not wholly been allayed by claims from Yemen that they’ve nipped the threat. After all, what is the threat?

Even the New York Times has grown uneasy at the “optics”, saying the bug-out has upset some of America’s foreign partners, generated a sense of panic, and hands al-Qaeda a psychological victory. Al-Qaeda would seem to agree. The NYT writes that the Legion of Doom can hardly contain its glee:

The gloating among jihadists and their sympathizers began last week, right after the United States shut down almost two dozen diplomatic posts across the Middle East in response to a terrorist threat. “God is great! America is in a condition of terror and fear from Al Qaeda,” wrote one jihadist in an online forum. Another one rejoiced: “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.”


But as George and LaFranchi point out, the vagueness of the threat makes it hard to judge whether the administration’s response is proportional or not. There are tantalizing hints that the threat extends beyond Yemen. CNN reports:

All in-bound cargo on commercial flights from Europe, the Middle East and Africa — and quite possibly other areas of the world — is being screened twice, as a result of the recent terror threats that have closed U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa, according to a cargo industry official.

The Department of Homeland Security late last week ordered airlines to increase the inspection of cargo at the last point of departure for the United States, said Brandon Fried, the executive director of Airforwarders Association, a trade group.

“They said, ‘until further notice, this is what you’re going to do,'” Fried said.

“Nothing unscreened gets on the plane,” Fried said. “Basically they said, ‘If you used one method, or several methods (of inspecting cargo), you need to do it again.’ It’s redundant, dual screening.”

Is it all security theater? Or are these precautions only barely adequate against a threat whose true dimensions have so far not been disclosed to the public? CNN described the rising drumbeat:

First came the closing of U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and North Africa this week, along with a worldwide travel alert warning of a possible al Qaeda attack in the region.

In addition, Americans were told to leave Yemen, the epicenter of al Qaeda militancy in the Middle East, and the State Department pulled out non-emergency embassy personnel on military aircraft that flew them to Germany.

U.S. forces in the region were put on two-hour alert for mission readiness, and now there have been seven suspected U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, where the local al Qaeda leader is now believed to be the terror group’s global second-in-command.

The seriousness of the U.S. response indicated that al Qaeda was not as decimated and on-the-run as President Barack Obama’s administration has claimed for some time, including in last year’s presidential campaign.


The contrast between the dramatic warnings and the unseen peril may only be a political charade. But indirectly indicative of the changed attitude in Washington is news from the Washington Free Beacon that the administration has, for the first time, indicated it might countenance a strike on Iranian WMDs. If confirmed, this indicates that the administration is very worried about something:

The red light Washington has been showing Jerusalem regarding an Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities has changed color recently, according to the previous head of Israeli military intelligence.

“The American stance on an Israeli strike has changed dramatically recently,” retired Gen. Amos Yadlin said in an interview on Israel Army Radio on Wednesday. “The music I’ve been hearing lately from Washington says ‘If this is truly an overriding Israeli security interest, and you think you want to strike,” then the light hasn’t changed to green, I think, but it’s definitely yellow.”

What could Iran have to do with it? Don’t we fear al-Qaeda? The linkage between Iranian WMDs and al-Qaeda (who occupy the opposing sectarian camp) is this: the closer the Iranians are to obtaining a working nuclear weapon, the greater the chance that the Sunni factions will follow suit. Leaking news that the Israelis have the sort-of green light to take out Iran’s WMDs reduces the political urgency for Sunni WMDs.

It has long been mooted, as a Yale University article shows, that Iran might buy an off-the-shelf nuke from Pakistan, North Korea, or even China as a “bridging” arsenal to tide them over the finish line should they get close enough. And clearly, if Iran can buy from Pakistan, why not al-Qaeda, whose “core” is supposedly in Pakistan itself and which may in fact be supported by Islamabad?


What was said in that “conference call” that spooked the administration so badly?

Testifying in early 2012, James Clapper told Congress:

While a “mass attack” was unlikely, groups like Yemen’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have expressed interest in acquiring the capability to carry out a limited attack using such weapons.

Recently, the BBC reported:

Al-Qaeda could gain access to Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons with ‘catastrophic’ consequences, a parliamentary committee has warned.

After hearing evidence from senior members of the intelligence agencies and the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), the committee highlighted “serious concern” among its witnesses that Syria’s weapons stockpiles might be compromised.

Assessments of their contents “vary considerably”, the report said, but suggest they include sarin, ricin, mustard gas and VX, which the committee described as “the deadliest nerve agent ever created”.

“There has to be a significant risk that some of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile could fall into the hands of those with links to terrorism, in Syria or elsewhere in the region,” the committee concluded.

“If this happens, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

Thus, while the underlying source of the security alert remains unclear, open source data suggests the threat of a chemical or similar attack on a Western target cannot be wholly discounted. Of course this is pure speculation, although it is consistent with the known facts.


The larger point is that the administration’s counter-terrorism strategy, if such a word can be used to describe their actions so far, is not working.

It has failed to buy off the enemy and it has apparently failed to exterminate al-Qaeda to the desired degree. Now the West is facing some counteroffensive of large, but unknown, character. The terrible “ifs” accumulate, and failure may now have produced the Perfect Storm.

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