On Sunday, the United States closed 22 embassies and consulates across the middle east and they remained closed all week. The closures were in response to fears of an imminent al Qaeda attack. The most recent reports indicate that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted a conference call among 20 of al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. If reports are true, the intercepted conference call was a venerable who’s who of the terrorist organization, including Ayman al-Zawahiri – who recently took over as the head of al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death – and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, whom Zawahiri reportedly promoted to his second in command during the conference call. What sprang the U.S. into action was talk of a team already in place for an attack, although when, where and how were unclear.
Lawmakers on the intelligence committees in Congress have said it was the most serious and credible threat since 9/11. News of the threat has raised a wide range of reactions. Some critics have argued that the decision to shutter 22 embassies and consulates was an overreaction. Maybe, but who could blame the current administration for doing so after the Benghazi attack? Others argue that this threat, allegedly the most serious since 9/11, is a direct rebuttal to the White House’s argument that al Qaeda is on the run. Still others argue that the shift in the group’s focus to its Yemeni affiliate is actually an indication of the core of al Qaeda’s weakness.
One thing is clear, however – the tight knit centralized al Qaeda is a thing of the past. There is no longer a safe haven in Afghanistan from which the group can plan, train for and launch attacks without bother. In that respect the war in Afghanistan and the more recent focus on drone strikes have been a success. Indeed, while there still remains some structure and hierarchy – with Ayman al Zawahiri as the new head – the group is now a band of loose affiliates with groups in Yemen, Iraq and Somalia, among others areas.
The operative question is, therefore, whether in cutting off the head of the snake, has the snake now morphed into something even more lethal than before. Was al Qaeda a greater threat as a centralized organization or is it a greater threat in its new form of loose affiliations? I would argue that al Qaeda’s new form of loose affiliates is potentially the more lethal beast. Several attacks have been launched – the 2009 Christmas Underwear Bomber, the 2010 cargo plane toner bomb plot, the 2010 Times Square bomb attempt - only to fail because of faulty bombs. We missed each of these plots and had the explosives worked, there would have been mass devastation. Al Qaeda’s loose affiliation makes it harder to track plots moving from the planning stage to the operational stage. There is no longer a structured hierarchy through which a plot must pass through and receive approval all the way up the chain.
We are fighting a new and potentially more lethal al Qaeda these days, I only hope our leaders here in America realize it.
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