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.
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.
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.”
National security specialists and lawmakers in both parties agree that the administration is taking the prudent course in closing the diplomatic facilities because of the threat. But the widespread closures and the level of alarm stood in sharp contrast to the terrorism status update that Mr. Obama provided May 23 in his speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
In that address, the president said of the war on terrorism, “This war, like all wars, must end.” He did draw a distinction between “core al Qaeda” and its affiliates such as AQAP.
“From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse,” Mr. Obama said. He spoke of taking more targeted actions against “specific networks of violent extremists,” of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorism suspects and of reconsidering the U.S. policy on drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
“His was the lie of the narrow truth,” said James Carafano, a national security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If you parse his NDU speech carefully, he said the enemy was ‘core al Qaeda,’ which we did attrit a good bit, and affiliates that were planning attacks on U.S. or Western targets. That so narrowed the definition of ‘the enemy’ that it was easy to claim he was winning. But an ‘affiliate’ could not be actively involved in an operational plot one day and thus not be considered a threat, and then all of a sudden the next day they might be.”
Mr. Carney said the president and his top advisers have been specific to state that some al Qaeda affiliates remain threats, even as the administration has carried out more drone strikes against suspects in Yemen, where al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has operated.
At the State Department, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that while administration officials — including Mr. Obama — have spoken of “the decimation of al Qaeda’s core, we’ve also, at the same time, always talked about how we need to keep up pressure on al Qaeda in places like Yemen, Somalia [and] other parts of the Middle East.”
Ms. Harf rejected a suggestion that the embassy closures could be related to heightened caution about security among U.S. diplomatic leaders in the wake of last year’s deadly attacks on the U.S. interests in Benghazi.
Asked whether officials were more vigilant than normal as a result of the violence at Benghazi, where armed militants stormed the U.S. diplomatic post and a CIA safe house, Ms. Harf said that “we’ve always been very vigilant about security.”
“Clearly post-Benghazi, we’ve made it clear, from the [secretary of state] on down that security is an utmost concern to us,” she added. “But it always has been.”
Multiple media reports and private briefings by administration officials have offered more details of the scope of the threat.
In interviews with The Washington Times and in television appearances during recent days, some have pointed to the central role of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrorist alert was issued just a day after Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi visited Mr. Obama in the Oval Office.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with headquarters in Yemen and known in intelligence circles simply as AQAP, is one of several branches — or offshoots — of the main al Qaeda organization originally headed by bin Laden. Of all the offshoots, AQAP is regarded by Western terrorism analysts to pose the greatest threat to the U.S. and Western interests.
A report Sunday by McClatchy Newspapers cited an unidentified official in Yemen describing the Zawahri communication with AQAP’s present leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi.
Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee announced the names of 25 suspected terrorists on Monday alleged to be planning “operations” in the Middle Eastern nation, according to a news release posted on the website of the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.
“The Yemeni government has taken all necessary precautions to secure diplomatic facilities, vital installations and strategic assets,” the release said.
The 19 diplomatic posts to remain closed this week include embassies and consulates in Yemen, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in the Middle East, as well as in Burundi, Rwanda, Madagascar and Mauritius in Africa. The U.S. reopened some posts Monday, including well-defended embassies in Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad.
Ms. Harf said that in the cases of emergency, Americans and citizens of the nations where the closures are taking place can find information and instructions on the websites of the closed facilities.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.