After closing a record number of embassies around the world because of a terrorist threat, the White House once again is falling back on a change in its counter-terrorism vernacular to explain how al Qaeda can both be “on the run,” as President Obama has so often said, and posing a serious worldwide threat.
Asked whether the closings of 22 diplomatic facilities, which began over the weekend, demonstrate that the Obama administration has taken its eye of the ball when it comes to fighting terrorism, White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was no question that the “core” of al Qaeda is “greatly diminished.” But, he acknowledged, affiliates have regrouped in the Arabian Peninsula, where the current terror threat emanated from and where intelligence officials worry it is most likely to occur.
On the campaign trail last year, Obama repeatedly boasted that all of “al Qaeda was on the run” and during a fundraiser after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, declared that “al Qaeda is on its heels.”
After the Boston bombing, the Obama administration began making a hard distinction between al Qaeda’s “core” in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its affiliates elsewhere, most notably the Arabian Peninsula in countries like Yemen, Algeria and Oman.
At a speech at the National Defense University in late May, Obama said the “core of al Qaeda” is nearly defeated even though Americans are still threatened by terrorists, as evidenced by the Boston bombings and the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
But, the president argued, the broad global threat has receded and should demand a broad drawdown of the war on terrorism, including scaling back drone attacks and revisiting the congressional resolution that set the country on perpetual war footing.
Peppered with questions about the status of al Qaeda considering the large-scale shutterings of diplomatic facilities across Central Asia, Northern Africa and the Middle East, Carney didn’t downplay the broad al Qaeda threat right now.
“I would say that the threat is emanating from and maybe directing towards the Arabian Peninsula, but it is beyond that,” Carney told reporters.
“What is also true is that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations represent a continued threat to the U.S., to our allies, to Americans stationed abroad, as well as those here at home,” he added.
Over the weekend, the State Department said it would extend the closure of some diplomatic facilities until Saturday.
Diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa, Tripoli, Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali and Port Louis will remain closed this week, according to its statement.
Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday that the threat was “specific and credible,” and that that the al Qaeda group in question is a “large operation.”
“I must say this is probably one of the most specific and credible threats I’ve seen since 9/11 and that’s why everybody’s taking this so seriously,” McCaul told CBS News. “The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff called it ‘extremely significant.’”
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who was previously chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said U.S. intelligence officials believe an attack is most likely to occur in the Arabian Peninsula or Middle East, but “it could be in Europe, it could be in the United States,” he said on “This Week.” “It could be a series of combined attacks.”
“This threat was so specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also certain dates were given,” King said.
Obama administration officials were so concerned about the threat that they met Saturday to discuss it. The meeting was led by National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and included, among others, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; Secretary of State John Kerry; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; and CIA director John Brennan.