US officials are speaking of a level of terrorist chatter as high as that prior to 11 September 2001. With Embassy closures across the Muslim world, large-scale prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, the threat tempo is rising. Is Al-Qa'ida planning an August surprise?
The weekend announcement by the American government that nineteen embassies should remain closed through the next week, alongside a travel advisory for US citizens travelling in the region, seems to emanate from a threat linked to Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Coming hot on the heels of a series of large-scale prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, the fear is that this is part of some co-ordinated effort. The reality is probably far more complicated than this, with the larger point being that the threat from Al-Qa'ida affiliated and associated terrorism continues to be a major concern.
The Threat from Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula
The first aspect to focus on is the danger from Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the driver of the threat reporting this past weekend. It seems to be focused on Sana'a in particular, with American, British, French, and German embassies all electing to close in Yemen last weekend. This was extended for the US, UK and German Embassies at least through Eid at the end of the week. French Foreign Minister Fabius announced the French mission would reopen Wednesday. Beyond this, the US closed a further twenty embassies across the Muslim world, while Canada decided to close its in Dhaka, Bangladesh - all relating to the same stream of threat reporting.
The level of specificity around the threat suggests that intelligence agencies have intercepted something particular, but the link to AQAP is not surprising. It is just over two weeks since Transport Security Administration (TSA) Administrator John Pistole confirmed a story that had been circulating for some time that AQAP master bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri had managed to successfully train a number of students. This knowledge transfer was seen as particularly dangerous given that al-Asiri has been responsible for a number of cunning devices that were able to penetrate airport security - Umar 'underpants bomber' Farouk Abdulmutallab, the dual printer bombs that were intercepted in Dubai and the UK while en route to the US, and the 'underpants 2' bomb that was handed over to authorities by an agent that had penetrated AQAP. In addition, we have seen a growing volume of drone strikes in Yemen in the past few weeks with three in quick succession since July 28, suggesting a growing focus by US intelligence.
A year has now passed since a bomb with al-Asiri's touch had been publicly detected, but he remains on the loose and eager to strike the US. Most recently, there has been a particular tempo of threat warnings from Al-Qa'ida in particular with leader Ayman al Zawahiri vowing to 'spare no effort' to free the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, whilst also condemning the use of drones. Guantanamo has a particular resonance with the leadership of AQAP, with recently deceased senior member Saaed al Shirhi having spent time in the jail before being released in 2007. His death by drone was recently confirmed by Ibrahim al Rubaish, another senior AQAP member who had been in Guantanamo. The group vowed to avenge his death. AQAP leader Nasir al Wuhaishi, a former confidant of Osama bin Laden is reported to have been promoted to a senior role within the global Al-Qa'ida organisation. The close links between what is left of Al-Qa'ida core in Waziristan and AQAP in Yemen, its technical capabilities, as well as its ability to control pieces of territory in Yemen, all point to it being one of the most dangerous of the Al-Qa'ida affiliates in terms of wanting and being able to launch attacks in the West.
As Al-Qa'ida-Core Fades, Al-Qa'ida Affiliates Consolidate
All of this comes in parallel to the large-scale prison breaks that we have seen in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The exact implications of the Libya break-out is unclear. But in Iraq and Pakistan the hand of Al-Qa'ida linked groups can be seen. In Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) demonstrated an ability to once again launch targeted operations with relative impunity in Pakistan - this time leading to the release of some 250 prisoners. It is unclear whether any of them were particularly high value targets, but doubtless the influx of people will be a boost to the organisation's capabilities regionally.
The Iraqi break seems far more alarming, especially given the reporting that a number of individuals of high concern have escaped. This comes as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qa'ida that has spread its wings deep into Syria), the group that claimed responsibility for the prison break, demonstrates an increasing ability on the field in Syria, while the death toll in Iraq last month is creeping up to the levels of the brutal insurgency of a few years ago. The almost 1,000 killed in the past month is a five year high. The influx of hardened fighters in the wake of the prison break will only further bolster its capabilities and raise the potential risk of the group launching attacks against targets in the broader region.
And atop this, we have seen a growing tempo of violence from the long brewing insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai and an open question hanging over what will happen now that the military has deposed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring, has seen gradually escalating violence and instability with targeted political assassinations, a number of deadly clashes between militants and authorities, and a man blowing himself up by accident in the capital while preparing a device. A recent report on foreign fighters being drawn to the battlefield in Syria highlighted the fact that in the dataset examined by the authors of death notices posted by groups, Tunisians accounted for the second-most number of foreign nationals killed at the front. This is a surprising evolution, further suggesting that jihadi fervour is strong in the country. And across North and West Africa, brewing hotspots and roving networks continue to launch sporadic attacks. In Somalia, a group that had largely been counted out, al-Shabaab, continues to be able to function with a relatively regular flow of incidents attributed to the group.
It seems, therefore, that there are many facets to this complicated threat picture, but it is not clear as to the degree to which all of these are connected. Even in the cases where there are clear and known links between the groups, it is not certain that all of these activities can be seen as part of a campaign.
Instead, a conclusion that can be drawn is the fact that some terrorist groups abroad are growing in strength and capability. At the moment, they remain relatively disparate with occasional links and connections though the co-ordination and global drive that used to underline Al-Qa'ida seems to have gone. But the connections cannot be completely discounted - in particular with AQAP - and the unifying impact of the conflict in Syria may yet bring some coherence back to the group.
There is a longer-term concern here. The more groups are able to consolidate their hold on pieces of territory, replenish their ranks through prison breaks and gain greater experience on the battlefield, the more experience and capability they develop. At the moment this seems something that is of greater regional than international concern, but the worry remains that eventually they might decide to live up to their international aspirations and rhetoric. Alternatively, individuals or groups with global ambition or anti-Western views might use these groups as a springboard to launch attacks against the West, drawing on their replenished capacity to attack.
Al-Qa'ida may now be a shadow of its former self, but the ideology and, more importantly, the affiliates it helped nurture remain. As they benefit from the chaos stirred by the Arab Spring, the long tail left after the 11 September, 2001 attacks gets longer. Countering terrorism overseas is clearly going to be key for Western policymakers for the next few years.
Senior Associate Fellow