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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Al-Qaeda's psychological victory

In light of the September 11 attack on the American Consulate in Libya and the murder of the ambassador, President Obama and his administration are not taking any chances. 

Washington's decision to keep several embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa closed on Sunday and the travel warning issued by the State Department are the result of the interception of electronic messages relayed between senior al-Qaeda operatives. 

The terror group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made a call to specifically target US and other Western destinations as revenge for drone strikes, mainly those conducted in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Several officials told CNN the fresh intelligence led the US to conclude that operatives of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were in the final stages of planning an attack against US and Western targets.

The current terror warning is focusing on al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, whose leader died a few months ago as a result of injuries he incurred in a drone strike. 

The warning has also led Britain to close its embassy in Yemen for at least two days. Intelligence information indicates that a UK mission may also be targeted.

The location of the Western embassies that are expected to remain closed on Sunday indicates that three main al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are involved in the terror plot:

1. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
2. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, which also poses a threat to Israel.
3. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is safe to assume that the warnings are based on intelligence information received from Internet messages and perhaps even coded phone conversations. This communication between senior al-Qaeda operatives is hard to decipher. 

Intelligence agencies, even the best and most experienced, misinterpret these missives from time to time. It is known that the Americans are not always able to decipher the messages, and that is precisely why they decided on the far-reaching measures, particularly in light of the fact that the timing of the planned terror attack and the identity of those who are supposed to carry it out remain unclear.
The absurdity is that by playing it safe the Obama administration is handing a huge victory to the terrorists, who are achieving their goal without moving from the carpet they are sitting on and without endangering the organization's operatives. 

The temporary closure of embassies and the travel warning for Americans and Britons give al-Qaeda a psychological victory.

Al-Qaeda has recently experienced a resurgence after recovering from the devastating blow it was dealt with the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

The American withdrawal from Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the expected pullout from Afghanistan have not only boosted the terror group's morale, they have also created new zones in which al-Qaeda has the support of the local population. Therefore, regional terror groups affiliated with al-Qaeda can now regain their operational ability to carry out terror attacks.

Why has al-Qaeda decided to attack now? Because of the month of Ramadan, because of the devastating American drone strikes (15 such targeted killings were conducted over the past month alone – three in Yemen), and because of the upcoming anniversaries of the September 11 attacks on US soil and in Benghazi. It appears that there is no truth to the claim that the purported terror plot is linked to US President Barack Obama's birthday on Sunday.

This is not the first time Qaeda-linked terror groups have planned to simultaneously attack Western embassies. It happened in 1998, in Kenya and Zambia. In response, President Clinton ordered a missile attack on an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.

It must be noted that the interception of the messages would not have been possible without the sophisticated systems operated by the National Security Agency. American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden exposed some of these surveillance programs, including PRISM, which intercepts electronic messages relayed between terror groups. 

The use of the systems was criticized in the US and around the world for their invasion of privacy, but it is clear that these systems, which are used not only by the US and Britain, save lives.

The US is treating the information provided by these systems with the utmost seriousness, and justifiably so, but it may have overreacted this weekend due to the Benghazi effect.

Israel has not issued a travel warning or taken any unusual measures, indicating that security officials in the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence believe the probability of something happening on Israeli soil, or in Israeli embassies abroad is not high.

Ron Ben-Yishai

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