The U.S. Embassy in Yemen is now offering limited public services. It is the final U.S. embassy to reopen following an intercepted message between high-ranking al Qaeda leaders that indicated a major attack was in the works. Today, that threat appears to be somehow mitigated, given the embassy reopening, but over the last chaotic two or so weeks, public attention has returned to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which had dropped below much of the world’s radar for its inactivity and relative silence.
While AQAP remains one of the more dangerous al Qaeda affiliates, it is important to put this recent threat in perspective. There are many intelligence and military elements in play that leave AQAP – rather than the United States – in a perilous position.
Al Qaeda’s Ominous Message
The message that sparked the wave of embassy closings was between Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of core al Qaeda thought to be hiding in Pakistan, and AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhayshi, who Zawahiri recently named as al Qaeda’s global second in command. While most details of the message have not been released, it has been reported that Zawahiri told Wuhayshi to “do something,” launching attacks in unidentified locations.
This message came on the heels of intelligence indicating a possible major attack in Yemen, as well as July prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, which have been generally attributed to al Qaeda elements. The message also coincided with the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, making it an auspicious time for al Qaeda extremists to martyr themselves. Thus, when U.S. intelligence intercepted the message sent through al Qaeda’s encrypted instant messaging program (called “Asrar al-Dardashah” or “Secrets of the Chat”), there was a sense that something big was coming. The U.S. embassy closings were an attempt to buy time – to remove potential targets while U.S. intelligence gathered more information and worked to capture or otherwise eliminate those plotting the attacks.
Following the series of failures and increased drone attacks, AQAP again found itself against the ropes with nothing gained and not many options to continue efforts on a large scale. As result, it released two videos in an attempt to herald its goals while masking its inability to achieve them.
Given last year’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Obama Administration was especially concerned with avoiding a similar attack – for the safety and security of America’s diplomatic corps, as well as, perhaps for the political ramifications another successful attack would cause. A senior official in the Yemeni Interior Ministry said:
“I think the American administration took such extreme precautionary measures to avert any possibility of a repetition of the Libyan scenario, for which it came under fierce Republican criticism. It appears it’s still haunted by that incident.” He added: “AQAP is definitely weaker than it was in 2011…If the Americans think it’s more dangerous, then they might see what we can’t, or are more knowledgeable than we are about the Yemeni security situation, which can’t be true.”
Backs Against the Wall
To be sure, Zawahiri and Wuhayshi are not chatting away on their smartphones or carrying on in-depth conversations while perched in front of a keyboard. Rather, they are likely passing messages to couriers who in turn share them with other couriers. Rita Katz, director of SITE Intelligence Group, told the Washington Post:
“I am sure they are delivering messages, through the message boards or by sending emails that are encrypted. But there is no way in my mind that Zawahiri or Wahishi have access to the Internet, and I think Wahishi, at this stage of his life, is even afraid of going outside.”