Is the Yemen Terror Threat Routine, Or Something Else Entirely?


After the U.S. government shut down 22 embassies across the Middle East and North Africa with little explanation as to the cause, 15 of these closures have now been extended through the week. The threats, it turns out, stem from a range of vague factors officials have used to explain this largely unprecedented security maneuver. The lack of specificity available regarding the current threat leaves it unclear just how effective the maneuver will be in protecting Americans, and even raises some question as to whether political motivations may be at play.

One reason the administration has cited for the closures is an intercepted message from senior Al-Qaeda operatives, said to have been discovered using the controversial PRISM framework for surveillance, but lacking information about the specific whereabouts of the threat. Other factors are even less specific, ranging from concerns over several major prison breaks in the region to concerns that the Eid celebration taking place as the month of Ramadan comes to an end poses a particularly sensitive time for security in the region.

Many of these factors relate to constant and lingering security dilemmas in the region no more threatening this week than others. For this reason, political motivations (to "save face" from lingering Benghazi controversy or to promote the benefits, for example, of the NSA's controversial PRISM program), cannot be taken out of the equation as the security lock down in the region continues to play out. 

Still, the State Department is defending its decision as an important precaution for the safety of American officials and local employees at its facilities across the region. The embassies were being shut down "out of an abundance of caution," the department explained, rather than a based on a "new threat stream."

The overly-cautious nature of the administration's statements alongside the relative lack of information available to the public about the alleged intercepted Al-Qaeda letter make it difficult to discern just how uniquely pressing the security threats are. Heightened anti-Americanism from drone programs in places like Pakistan and Yemen, and recent Jihadist muster from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahari are just some of the vague, largely unexceptional reasons being tossed about as potentially related factors contributing to fears that this week is a particularly dangerous time for Americans in the region. 

Senator Lindsey Graham (R- S.C.) has supported the decision as an indication that the administration has learned a lesson from Benghazi. But not all Senate republicans see the shutdown as an effective safety measure to prevent another Benghazi. Rep. Ted Poe (R- Texas), for example, has criticized that the decision shows our enemies that "terrorism works."

Poe's argument is based on the fact that security threats across the region are, of course, a constant part of today's international political climate. "We'd rather be safe than have somebody hurt but the long term answer is every time someone gets information, we can't shut them all down all over the world," he said. His point is compelling if one considers that the ending of Ramadan as a reason cited by officials for this week's security lockdown stands as a yearly occasion no more threatening, one would think, than the anniversary of 9/11 that has and will continue to pose annual security concerns for Americans in the region.

Closing our diplomatic facilities on such occasions, Poe insists, tells terrorists, "We're ready on this day, but maybe not another day. We need to be ready every day." He is right, in that an effective security system can only function when diplomatic programs are able to function year-round. The fine line ahead will be determining when risking the safety of American officials and travelers is worth the costs of pulling the plug on diplomatic programs and travel.

The Obama administration faces a tough road ahead in managing the difficult position of its post-Benghazi diplomatic security policy. The decision to shut down embassies in this instance may be based on a more clear and pressing threat than the public can (and should) be aware of in order to prevent a Benghazi-like catastrophe, or worse. But the reality is that the embassy shutdowns and global travel alerts must be lifted at some point, and the wide-ranging security threats facing Americans in the region will continue to press on.

The hope remains that hard evidence of a pressing security threat, rather than murky political motivations and compensation for past failures, is informing the security decisions impacting American diplomatic programs across the region this week.