(MCCLATCHY DC) -- U.S. officials insisted Tuesday that extraordinary security measures for nearly two dozen diplomatic posts were to thwart an “immediate, specific threat,” a claim questioned by counterterrorism experts, who note that the alert covers an incongruous set of nations from the Middle East to an island off the southern coast of Africa.
Analysts don’t dispute the Obama administration’s narrative that it’s gleaned intelligence on a plot involving al Qaida’s most active affiliate, the Yemen-based Arabian Peninsula branch. That would explain why most U.S. posts in the Persian Gulf are on lockdown, including the U.S. embassy in Yemen, which on Tuesday airlifted most of its personnel to Germany in an “ordered departure,” the government’s euphemism for an evacuation.
But how, then, does it make sense for the State Department to close embassies as far afield as Mauritius or Madagascar, where there’s been no visible jihadist activity? And why is it that countries that weathered numerous terrorist attacks – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, for example – were excluded or allowed to reopen quickly?
At Tuesday’s State Department briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said there were plans to keep 19 posts closed to the public through Saturday. But she had no answers when a reporter asked: “How did the countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean get into this?”
“We make decisions post by post,” Psaki said. “That’s something that is constantly evaluated at a high level through the interagency process.”
If ordinary Americans are confused, they’re in good company. Analysts who’ve devoted their careers to studying al Qaida and U.S. counterterrorism strategy can’t really make sense of it, either. There’s general agreement that the diffuse list of potential targets has to do with either specific connections authorities are tracking, or places that might lack the defenses to ward off an attack. Beyond that, however, even the experts are stumped.
Take this sampling of reactions from prominent al Qaida observers:
“It’s crazy pants – you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism who this month joins the Brookings Saban Center as the director of its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
“We just showed our hand, so now they’re obviously going to change their position on when and where” to attack, said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was part of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden for years.
“It’s not completely random, but most people are, like, ‘Whaaat?’ ” said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net
“I’m not going to argue that it’s not willy-nilly, but it’s hard for me to come down too critical because I simply don’t know their reasoning,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research institute. Continue reading via McClatchy DC...