The 4 August global travel warning and the closure of US embassies in the Middle East and North Africa are partly based on intercepted communications of al-Qaeda-linked figures and some jihadi jail breaks, but partly to set the stage for a new wave of drone attacks in Yemen, and partly because a revival of the terror threat is a necessary distraction from the uncomfortable fact that Washington is losing face amid the Snowden drama.
While embassies have been closed down temporarily in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, in Yemen, all non-essential staff has been evacuated entirely in order to set the stage for a new wave of drone strikes on targets loosely related to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—not to be confused with al-Qaeda in Iraq, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Targeting AQAP in Yemen is easy in so far as this particular al-Qaeda grouping is not fighting the regime in Syria so there will be no negative fallout in terms of tricky alliances needed to fight Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad.
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Yemen makes it easy to revive the war on terror at a time when Washington needs the American public to rally around a foreign enemy, taking the heat off that nasty business of spying on its own people in the now infamous case of Edward Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum by Russia.
So right now what’s happening in Yemen is dramatic and very newsworthy—filling the mainstream media headlines.
But Yemeni officials are making it sound too easy, and the story requires longevity. To wit, as reported by Fox News, the Yemeni announced already yesterday that the authorities had disrupted al-Qaeda plots to storm oil pipelines and take control of two cities. To this, unnamed US intelligence officials said the announcement was premature and that there is still fear about “soft targets” in the Middle East and elsewhere.
While Yemen is an easy target, the Middle East is not. And this brings us to the jihadi jail breaks that have gotten everyone so excited with fear. First, we have the jail break in Benghazi, Libya, which is a concern but which has nothing to do with Yemen. Here it’s impossible to get an exact figure of how many militants broke free, but the realistic estimate is probably 1,000.
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This is definitely a cause for concern, though less for Libya which is already a chaos of roving militias, and more for those countries unlucky enough to share a border with it—like Tunisia and Algeria, the former already struggling to keep the radical Islamists from slipping over and stirring up trouble for a government that is close to falling. At the same time, these are radical forces that were allied with the West in overthrowing Libyan leader Gaddafi, and they are also of the same ilk that are fighting the regime in Syria. So targeting them gets a bit tricky.
We come across the same problem with the larger jail break in Baghdad, Iraq, which saw some 1,400 Sunni fighters gain their freedom—and they will likewise be eying the Syrian conflict terrain to fight against the regime.
This is why the war on terror will have such longevity—it can be pulled out and withdrawn very conveniently whenever there is a need to remind people who the real (foreign) enemy is. Are the threats real? Likely they are to some extent, as they always will be, but it’s important to understand the dynamics of Washington’s relationship with various radical Islamist groups as well as the fact that the label al-Qaeda itself no longer applies to a singular organization.
By. Charles Kennedy of Oilprice.com