- The Washington Times - Monday, August 5, 2013

Even as the White House insisted that the U.S. has made great strides in the war against terrorism under President Obama, the president’s spokesman acknowledged Monday that officials cannot rule out the possibility that the latest terrorist plot apparently discussed between top al Qaeda operatives could jeopardize the U.S. homeland.

Fresh details emerged about the nature of the threat that will keep U.S. embassies in 19 Middle Eastern and African cities closed for the rest of the week, as U.S. and allied security officials continued to grapple with a threat that all sides in Washington agreed was the most credible one in years.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the threat “could potentially” extend beyond the Middle East. “We cannot be more specific,” he said, declining several times to rule out U.S. territory as a target. But Mr. Carney, in the same briefing Monday, had to justify Mr. Obama’s claims over the past year that al Qaeda was on the “path to defeat” under his leadership.

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It was revealed Monday that an intercepted communication between al Qaeda global leader Ayman al-Zawahri and a top operative in Yemen about an impending major attack sparked the unprecedented Obama administration response.

The secret message originally was thought to refer to an operation in Yemen, but intelligence analysts later concluded the strike could be more widespread and U.S. embassies and other diplomatic posts in the region could be targeted, The Associated Press reported Monday evening, citing an unidentified U.S. intelligence official and a Middle East diplomat. The Yemeni government also was reportedly on high alert, with beefed-up security at major government buildings and checkpoints.

The State Department last week announced the closure of 22 embassies and consulates, following reports that al Qaeda might strike Western targets this week, around the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan. Through the end of the week, 19 sites will be closed because of what officials are calling “an abundance of caution.” With Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands having joined the United States in closing their embassies in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, several U.S. lawmakers briefed on the intelligence have said the threat was the worst they had heard of since Sept. 11, 2001.

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Defensive White House

The massive mobilization of security assets left Mr. Carney and the White House scrambling to defend the president’s oft-stated claim on the campaign trail last year that al Qaeda had been decimated under his watch, unable to regroup after the 2011 mission that killed founder Osama bin Laden and other strikes that eliminated other top terrorist figures.

But critics say the president’s own rhetoric about the state of the global war on terrorism is coming back to bite him.

In a major national security speech in May, Mr. Obama maintained that the global war on terrorism was essentially over and that al Qaeda’s stragglers “spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”

Mr. Obama campaigned for re-election on the theme that al Qaeda was “on the run.” Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s favorite line on the campaign trail was, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” At the Democratic National Convention last year, John F. Kerry, now secretary of state, told the party faithful to wild applause, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago.”

But less than a week after Democrats renominated Mr. Obama, terrorists linked to al Qaeda attacked the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. No one has been brought to justice for those killings, and Obama critics say the result has only emboldened al Qaeda and its affiliates.

“A year has passed, and nobody’s paid a price,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Sunday on CNN. “After Benghazi, these al Qaeda types are really on steroids, thinking we’re weaker and they’re stronger.”

On Monday, the White House parsed the administration’s claims of having al Qaeda on the “path to defeat” in light of the revelations of the past four days.

“There is no question over the past several years, al Qaeda core has been greatly diminished, not least because of the elimination of Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Carney said. “What is also true is that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations represent a continued threat to the United States, to our allies, to Americans stationed abroad, as well as Americans here at home.”

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