In warning about possible al Qaeda attacks against Americans overseas, U.S. officials may have provided too much detail about intercepted chatter and the source of the information, and that may make it more difficult to get such tips next time, former and current intelligence officials say.
On Friday, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert for Americans, citing an unspecified al Qaeda threat. The bulletin said that the highest threat levels are the Middle East and North Africa, “and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arab Peninsula.”
As a result of the threat, the United States will close 21 embassies in 17 countries in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia on Sunday, the traditional start of the work week in those countries.
On Saturday, unnamed U.S. officials told media outlets Yemeni intelligence agencies alerted Washington to the threat during the visit by the Yemeni president to Washington.
U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity further told press representatives that “chatter” among “operatives” from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had been taking place over the last several weeks, and increased over the last few days, lending further credence to the Yemeni warning.
Intelligence officials are dismayed that the administration provided so much detail on what prompted the closings, and that the disclosures could work against obtaining new information. Militants are now likely searching for the sources of the information to both the U.S. and Yemeni officials, and almost certainly will kill anyone they suspect of working with Western intelligence.
“There simply are not that many who would know about the attacks,” says one former high-ranking U.S. intelligence officer, “so it won’t be hard for al Qaeda leaders to pin-point the sources of information. Once that happens, they certainly won’t be working with us anymore.”
Other sources are also likely to reconsider their relationship with the United States over the disclosures. “These guys know their lives are in danger. As soon as the U.S. shows we can’t be trusted, they will go under ground and we won’t hear from them again,” says a current intelligence officer.
The officer explained that the terrorist threat is one of the most difficult targets in intelligence, and obtaining sources among terrorists is extremely hard.
“First of all, you’re dealing with a group that does not like Washington. If they have access to information, they are almost certainly highly indoctrinated. They live in remote areas of the world, are closely watched by their associates and speak languages U.S. intelligence officers rarely speak.
“You can’t just walk into an al Qaeda training camp and say, ‘Hi guys, I’m from the CIA and I would really like to hear what you have to tell me.’ Usually we have to use multiple layers of sub-sources to get any access at all, and even that is hard because these guys don’t trust anyone. Who do you think knows if they are going to attack an embassy? It’s something they hold very closely. You can’t believe how really hard this is.”
“Any statement like this, even though it seems relatively benign, will absolutely have repercussions. We’re going to have to start all over again,” adds an intelligence officer currently assigned to the Middle East.
Intelligence officers say Washington could have cited other reasons for closing the embassies, which likely did play into their decision-making. Recent drone attacks have successfully targeted militant leaders, raising the possibility of retaliation against the United States. Additionally, over the last month, al Qaeda has mounted attacks on numerous prisons to release al Qaeda prisoners. Ten days ago, al Qaeda took credit for breaking out more than 500 militants from Abu Ghraib prison, for example.
Sunday also marks the 27th day of Ramadan, known as “The Night of Power,” when the first verses of the Koran were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, and some analysts believe that date may encourage militants to launch attacks against “infidels.”
The statement that the threat could be from ” the Arab Peninsula” suggests that the terrorist group planning the operation is al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That group has brown stronger over the last two years, according to intelligence sources. It has garnered new adherents and developed new weapons.
Moreover, the unsettled situation in Yemen has provided increased opportunities for the group to operate without scrutiny and to recruit followers. The group has launched numerous successful attacks over the last year, including the killing in early July of a former high-ranking government official responsible for counter-terrorism during his tenure.
The United States views AQAP as such a significant threat that it not only uses drone attacks to target the group, but it has also sent advisors to Yemen to help the military combat AQAP on the ground.
Intelligence, however, is the most successful method to counter terrorism. “How do drones know where to strike? How do we know where AQAP is going to target next? How do we know what people and resources to move to protect them? Intelligence. I can’t even begin to tell you how many attacks we have stopped thanks to intelligence. But we don’t go out and broadcast that to the world. It doesn’t work that way,” says the active intelligence officer in the Middle East.
“Now? We are going to have to start all over again. We are operating blind,” he says.
• Lisa Ruth is an intelligence expert and a former analyst for the CIA.