Chill Out About the American Embassy Closings

Everybody keep calm; the system is working as it's supposed to.

American officials, who issued a travel warning for Pakistan Thursday night, say the U.S. Consulate in Lahore has been specifically threatened.
American officials, who issued a travel warning for Pakistan Thursday night, say the U.S. Consulate in Lahore has been specifically threatened.

From the tiny island-nation of Mauritius to mighty Saudi Arabia, numerous U.S. diplomatic facilities are being shuttered this week because of an intercepted message by al-Qaida's chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, calling for the head of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wahishi, to strike American targets.

But, dear reader, there is no need to freak out, because the system is working. Here are three reasons why:

1) America caught wind of the terrorists' plot. This signals intercept shows that that the mission of the much-embattled National Security Agency remains critical to thwarting terrorist attacks. Given that this communication occurred between two terrorists living abroad, the U.S. government's overseas signals collection effort did not impinge on Americans' civil liberties or privacy. Stopping or thwarting terrorist plots is exactly why the U.S. has these sophisticated tools and techniques – and we can see it here in action.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

It's not like the U.S. intelligence community's intercept capabilities work in a vacuum. The embassy closures were based upon a "broad range of reporting" – presumably from information derived from other American intelligence agencies and foreign liaison services.

This is not new. For example, the CIA has worked with other intelligence services in the region, helping to thwart AQAP attacks in 2010 and 2012. America's lethal counterterrorism tactics have taken key AQAP operatives (such as the group's second in command) "off the battlefield" – though some argue this broad effort is ultimately counterproductive.

2) Closing embassies makes them less-than-desirable targets. Al-Qaida operatives probably don't want to hit empty buildings, even if they fly the Stars and Stripes atop them. And that's why closing the embassies was the right choice. America needs to safeguard personnel in the face of a real threat.

It should be noted that it is a very public action to close some two dozen embassies, and someone had to put their reputation on the line and make a tough call. But if there's a real-life, credible threat, then shuttering embassies was the correct decision.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

3) Embassies have been targeted many times before. No one wants diplomatic personnel to be hurt or killed because we ignored a credible warning. The lethal attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, is likely in the back of everyone's mind, but this is not the State Department's first brush with those who want to do American interests harm.

After all, in addition to al-Qaida, U.S. diplomatic facilities have been targeted by Hezbollah, Iranian students, leftist Greeks, Serbians, Egyptians and Chinese rioters. The adversary's grievances, political persuasions and weaponry change over the years, but the threat remains.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a sophisticated, treacherous adversary – so much so  that America's top intelligence official, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testified before Congress earlier this year about the group's threat to the U.S. homeland. And no system can completely stop all terrorist attacks.

But closing facilities because of a threat isn't a failure, for it shows that the system, whatever its flaws, works the way it's supposed to. For counterterrorism professionals, a slow news day – when nothing blows up and no one dies – is a good day.

Aki Peritz is the senior policy adviser for national security at Third Way and author of "Find, Fix, Finish: Inside the Counterterrorism Campaigns that Killed bin Laden and Devastated Al Qaeda." 

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