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White House's response to terrorist threat angers its foreign partners


New York Times


WASHINGTON » The gloating among jihadists and their sympathizers began last week, right after the United States shut down almost two dozen diplomatic posts across the Middle East in response to a terrorist threat.

"God is great! America is in a condition of terror and fear from al-Qaida," wrote one jihadist in an online forum. Another one rejoiced: "The mobilization and security precautions are costing them billions of dollars. We hope to hear more of such psychological warfare, even if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground."

The jihadists are not the only ones who see the new terrorist alert in a caustic light.

The Obama administration's decision to evacuate so many diplomats on such short notice — however justified by the seriousness of the threat — has upset some of its foreign partners, who say the gesture contributes to a sense of panic and perceived weakness that plays into the hands of the United States' enemies and impedes their efforts to engage with people in their countries.

Some U.S. officials have also said they believe the administration overreacted, in large part because of the political fallout from the attack last year on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens. Since that attack, security procedures have been tightened at U.S. diplomatic outposts across the Middle East. Those embassies are already so heavily fortified against attacks that many diplomats lament that it is more and more difficult for them to do their jobs.

"I think since Benghazi the administration has been in a defensive crouch, and they are playing it as safe as they can," said Will McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism official who is now an analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va.

The government of Yemen issued a rare public rebuke to the Obama administration Tuesday, declaring in a statement that the evacuation "serves the interests of the extremists" and undermines cooperation with the United States. As if to answer the gesture, Yemen announced Wednesday that it had foiled a spectacular plot to bomb oil pipelines and take over major ports — an assertion that was greeted by analysts both here and abroad as little more than cynical political theater, aimed at proving that Yemen was capable of defeating al-Qaida on its own.

The diplomatic shutdown may have been especially jarring, analysts say, because the administration has portrayed al-Qaida as a waning force in the past year.

"The impression the administration left was that al-Qaida was dead or close to dead," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA case officer and a Brookings Institution scholar. "In which case, why are we so worried about a conversation between two al-Qaida leaders?"

The intercepted conversation in question was between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the leader of al-Qaida, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. U.S. officials and lawmakers have said that the conversation revealed one of the most serious terrorist plots against Western interests since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But the vagueness of the threat has made it easier to question the Obama administration's response. The two men did not specify the nature or location of the attack, U.S. officials say. The timing was also unclear, although the attack was apparently originally scheduled to take place Sunday.

In an appearance Tuesday on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," President Barack Obama defended the government's initial decision to shutter 22 embassies and consulates. The State Department said Monday that 19 diplomatic missions would remain closed through the end of this week.

"Whenever we see a threat stream that we think is specific enough that we can take some specific precautions within a certain time frame, then we do so," Obama said.

On Wednesday, several U.S. intelligence, defense and congressional officials described a growing body of intercepted communications among jihadists over the past few months that culminated in especially worrisome conversations between Zawahri and Wuhayshi.

"It's a very high threat environment with al-Qaida right now because of the quality, quantity and seriousness of the intelligence we're getting," said one congressional official who receives regular updates from the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency.

By closing the embassies and consulates, the United States and its allies deprive terrorists of potential targets and also buy time to find more clues and pressure extremist networks, hoping to trip up any would-be attackers.

Still, some security analysts, as well as current and former government officials, said the administration, still stinging from the criticism of its handling of the attack in Benghazi in September, was taking extraordinary precautions in this instance.

To some critics, the diplomatic shutdown was reminiscent of the Bush administration's color-coded terrorism alerts, which were seen by some as efforts to sow fear and broaden political support for stronger anti-terrorism policies.

In the Middle East, some government officials saw the alert as an unnecessary blow that was bound to further damage their efforts to lure tourists and foreign investment.

That was especially true in Yemen, whose president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was in Washington last week meeting with Obama.

Yemen's government has worked closely with the United States on counterterrorism measures, and U.S. officials, who had a troubled relationship with Yemen's former longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have voiced confidence in Hadi and increased aid to the country.

"When you do evacuations, you signal that all the effort to build up trust in the Yemeni security establishment amounts to nothing," said one Yemeni official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And all the development projects by USAID and its counterparts in Britain, Germany and elsewhere — everything stops."

In the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, the U.S. withdrawal prompted a muscular display of military defiance that left residents puzzled. Jet fighters soared across the sky throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, and soldiers in armored vehicles blocked sections of the city.

Yemeni officials said Wednesday that they had thwarted a bold plot by al-Qaida to take over ports and destroy oil pipelines. But they provided no evidence of the plot, which was not related to the threats that prompted the embassy closings.

The Yemeni announcement, which echoed other recent statements about foiled terrorist schemes, elicited skepticism and even some amusement among analysts.

"The timing of the plot is deeply suspicious," said Gregory Johnsen, the author of "The Last Refuge," a book on Yemen and al-Qaida. "It doesn't fit into what we know about al-Qaida, but it does fit into what we know about the way the Yemeni government plays these things."

Yemeni security officials have often announced major operations to disrupt al-Qaida just as U.S. officials were arriving on official visits — operations that mysteriously faded away after the officials left the country.

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