Global, nonspecific threats such as those that prompted recent U.S. embassy closures and travel warnings have rarely proved credible. These precautionary measures appear to be the result of two separate threats, one attack against an unspecified U.S. embassy and another against travel infrastructure — presumably an airliner. In response to the embassy threat, the U.S. government announced Aug. 4 that it had extended the embassy closures in the Middle East until Aug. 10 and that African posts would now be among the embassies closed. In response to the airline threat, Washington issued a global travel alert running from Aug. 2 to Aug. 31. The travel warning and the embassy closures have commanded the media’s attention and have led to much speculation about the source and the credibility of the threats, but more often than not these threats fail to materialize.
Most attacks against embassies have involved a large vehicle bomb, an armed assault or a combination of a vehicle bomb and armed assault. Such was the case with the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, in September 2008. To mitigate the impact of a perceived threat, the United States will close an embassy, increase security and request that the host country bolster its security presence at the compound.
Many of the embassy closures in response to the August threats happen to have very good physical security measures in place due to their locations in the Middle East, which poses higher threat levels to U.S. facilities. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa was built in accordance with the security standards established by the Inman Commission. Therefore, it is designed to withstand bomb attacks and armed assaults. Still, even well constructed buildings are vulnerable to mob attacks like the one directed against the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September 2012. Only the host country security forces can provide protection against such threats.
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The threat to embassies has been a persistent feature of the age of modern terrorism, and so has the threat to airliners and travelers. As for the threat to aviation, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has a history of failed attacks against commercial and cargo airliners using cleverly disguised explosive devices. While these devices have failed in the past, it is likely that the group’s bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, has been able to solve the problems that afflicted his past designs. In fact, in a thwarted underwear bomb plot in May 2012, the alleged suicide bomber turned his device over to Saudi officials, and the device was reportedly of a different design from the one used in the failed Christmas 2009 attempt.
Threats to embassy buildings and airliners have been a persistent feature of the age of modern terrorism. While the tactics and tradecraft used to attack these targets have changed in response to evolving security procedures, diplomatic facilities and airliners have nonetheless remained desirable targets. Jihadists will continue to be drawn to them even as the jihadist threat continues to shift from one posed by the al Qaeda core to one centered on regional militant groups that have adopted the al Qaeda brand name, such as al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Not Another Benghazi
As the threat persists, however, that fact remains that many warnings are issued for threats that never actually materialize. Warnings can be invalidated by bad information, deliberate disinformation or postponed or canceled plots. This is especially true of global, non-specific warnings, such as those against U.S. embassies in the Middle East and Asia in mid-2001.
In the post-Benghazi political environment, warnings issued by the U.S. government are likely evidence that Washington is acting out of an overabundance of caution — no politician or bureaucrat wants to experience another Benghazi. Overreacting is seen as preferable to the risks of failing to warn at all. It is also important to remember that practically, the threat is more acute in places where al Qaeda franchise groups are active, such as Yemen and Libya, than it is globally.
Terrorism is an enduring reality. There were people planning attacks against U.S. embassies and international aviation before these alerts were issued, and there will continue to be people planning attacks well after the warning expires on August 31. The U.S. State Department has maintained a “worldwide caution” since 2001 that is updated every six months or so. This means that people must not allow themselves to be caught up in the hype that surrounds such warnings. Rather they should keep terrorism in perspective and practice prudent situational awareness.