State Department Global Alert Shows ‘New Normal’ of Terrorism

Al-Qaeda and its allies eye "softer" targets in their own neighborhoods

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A United States flag flies behind a tall fence at the United States Consulate General building in Jerusalem, Israel, 03 Aug. 2013.

Updated Aug. 4, 2013, 5:10 p.m. E.T.: The U.S. State Department announced on Sunday that 19 embassies throughout the Middle East and Africa would remain closed through Saturday “out of an abundance of caution.” Spokeswoman Jen Psaki says the decision was “not an indication of a new threat.” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday the warning involves “the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.”

Shortly after militants took hostages and killed 37 people in a January attack on a BP gas facility in Algeria, a White House official told TIME that attacks on Westerners in North Africa and the Middle East could represent a “new normal” in Islamic terrorism. Several weeks later, the bombing of the Boston marathon refocused attention on the threat of self-radicalized lone-wolf terrorists within the U.S. But the State Department’s worldwide travel alert announced on Friday, along with the closure of several U.S. embassies and consulates in and around the Middle East, is a reminder of the new normal scenario.

While cautioning that al-Qaeda and its affiliates continue to plot attacks around the world, the State Department alert specifically cites the Middle East and North Africa, and singles out the risk of attacks “occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.” CNN’s reporting on Friday suggested that the U.S. officials are particularly focused on Yemen, home to what is now considered al-Qaeda’s most dangerous branch: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

American officials consider AQAP a greater threat than al-Qaeda’s core Pakistan-based leadership, which has been crushed by a relentless drone campaign. And AQAP certainly aspires to strike the mainland U.S., as detailed in TIME’s recent story on the intense hunt for the group’s master bombmaker, who has repeatedly tried to down U.S.-bound airliners.

But in general, the prospects of a 9/11-style attack within America’s borders have diminished, analysts say, thanks to new domestic security measures and a degradation of al-Qaeda’s capabilities. Localized attacks are easier to stage, requiring less money, planning and international communication. Here’s President Obama making the point in his May address on counterterrorism at the National Defense University:

Today, the core of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat. Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us. They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston. They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.

Instead, what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al-Qaeda affiliates. From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse, with al-Qaeda’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula — AQAP — the most active in plotting against our homeland. And while none of AQAP’s efforts approach the scale of 9/11, they have continued to plot acts of terror, like the attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009 …

While we are vigilant for signs that [local extremist groups] may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based. And that means we’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria, in which local operatives — perhaps in loose affiliation with regional networks — launch periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies, and other soft targets, or resort to kidnapping and other criminal enterprises to fund their operations.

As the Tsarnaev brothers demonstrated, the terrorist threat within America’s borders has hardly passed. But freelance radicals are a different kind of problem from terrorist groups abroad. The State Department’s alert is a reminder that those groups pose a much greater threat to Americans in their own neighborhoods than they do to major U.S. cities. Welcome to the new normal.