It was powerful symbol of a sudden shift in the balance-of-power in the Middle East.
The "symbol" (in this case) was an Air Force C-17 transport, lifting off from an airfield in Yemen. On board the Globemaster III were members of the U.S. diplomatic staff from our embassy in Sanaa, evacuated over concerns about a pending terrorist strike by Al Qaida. While a small contingent will remain at the embassy, operations will be greatly curtailed and the State Department has urged all Americans to leave the country, noting that its ability to assist U.S. citizens will be greatly reduced, in an "extremely high" security threat level.
Americans aren't the only ones fleeing Yemen. Britain has announced plans to reduce its official presence in that country, assessing (correctly) that its diplomats and facilities may be targeted as well. More western countries are expected to follow suit, amid reports that terror teams have been dispatched are now positioned near their assigned targets. Al Qaida's most dangerous affiliate has long been active in Yemen, and many analysts believe it is a likely locale for a major attack.
The decision to remove most of our official delegation from Yemen came after U.S. intelligence intercepted a communication from Al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leader of his affiliate in Yemen, discussing plans for an upcoming major attack. The conversation was part of a "major increase in chatter" recently detected by intel organizations (read: NSA). Congressional leaders briefed on these developments claim that terrorist communications are at their highest levels since 9-11, adding more credence to reports that a major attack is in the offing.
In view of the current security situation, the evacuation of U.S. diplomats from Yemen was probably a prudent move. With the spectre of Benghazi (and four dead Americans) still hanging over the White House, no one wants to risk another debacle at a weakly-defended diplomatic outpost. In fact, we're told the key White House meeting that led to the Yemen evacuation (and the temporary closing of embassies in 20 other Muslim countries) was chaired by none other than Susan Rice, the National Security Advisor who was roundly criticized last September, when (as UN Ambassador) she was disptached on the Sunday shows and claimed the Benghazi incident was in response to an anti-Muslim video.
Readers will note that President Obama was not present for that meeting. It was his birthday weekend, afterall, and not even a major terrorist threat was going to keep him off the golf course. That prompted some speculation about the exact nature of the threat; afterall, it was serious enough to shutter our embassies across the Middle East (and prompt an evacuation from Yemen), why was the President playing golf, and not meeting with his national security team.
It's also worth remembering that the plot has been evolving over a period of time. Media reports suggest that the spike in chatter began several weeks ago, but the public wasn't informed until late last week. Obviously, thee spooks wanted to monitor terrorist communications for as long as possible, hoping to learn more details about the plot. But why was the warning delayed so long? Judging by the far-flung nature of the warning, it would appear that Al Qaida may be preparing to strike in multiple countries at once, or we still don't have the particulars on terror plot. If that latter scenario is true, it raises new questions about the effectiveness NSA's recently-disclosed, on-line surveillance efforts that have (supposedly) thwarted a number of terrorist attacks.
Indeed, one report suggests that Al Qaida isn't particularly concerned that the folks at Fort Meade might be listening in. According to Eli Lake at the Daily Beast, U.S. officials decided to issue the terror warning after intercepting an Al Qaida "conference call" that included more than 20 operatives, including Zawahiri, Nasser al-Wuhayshi (head of the Yemeni branch) and leaders of affiliates in locations ranging from Nigeria to Uzebekistan.
Intelligence officials familiar with the call believe the Al Qaida leaders thought the call was secure, and suggested that we have been monitoring these "board meetings" for several months. That will obviously change, but such large-scale meetings are hardly indicative of a terror group that is on the run. For once, we actually agree with Lindsey Graham, who recently observed that Al Qaida has been "on steriods" since last year's successsful strike in Benghazi.
Oddly enough, the current circumstances seem to be a "win-win" for all sides. Al Qaida has demonstrated that it is far from "decimated," and with just a spike in chatter, they have forced the U.S. to close diplomatic facilities from North Africa to Pakistan. Given the level of the American response, there is a very real perception in the Muslim world that Al Qaida has the United States on the defensive, if not on the run.
For the Obama Administration, the terror threat came at an opportune moment. Benghazi was bubbling up again, amid CNN's report that almost two dozen CIA operatives were on the ground when the consulate came under attack. That renewed speculation that the diplomatic facility--and Ambassador Chris Stevens--were heavily involved in the transfer of weapons to Syrian rebels. In fairness, credible sources have dimissed those claims, but CNN is standing by its story. When the terror warning surfaced late last week, Benghazi was displaced by the new "story of the day," albeit temporarily.
Reports about intercepted chatter also gave a reprieve to the NSA, which has been under fire for months, after Edward Snowden's disclosures about its domestic surveillance program. Supporters of the agency were quick to highlight NSA's role in detecting the latest threat, obscuring larger questions about the scope of its efforts and the need to collect phone and internet data from ordinary Americans.
Finally, the latest terror warning gave the White House an opportunity to make the most of a sudden crisis. That weekend meeting (minus the President) created the appearance of being on top of the situation, while tamping down criticism of the NSA and domestic spying. Predictably, the administration's friends in the press were more than happy to go along with the changing narrative.
At this point, it appears Al Qaida has achieved a major, tactical victory without attacking a single target or detonating a single bomb. Closing our diplomatic facilities in 22 Muslim countries was a major setback, debunking administration claims that the terror group is in retreat. Now, the White House faces the challenge of re-opening our embassies and consulates across the Middle East--and preventing possible terrorist strikes. But it's hard to erase the image that appeared in the skies over Yemen yesterday, the image of a superpower taking flight, from an enemy it had supposedly decimated.