Bottom Line: Jailbreaks of al-Qaida suspects in nine countries and chatter among al-Qaida affiliates of a possible attack on Western interests in the Middle East and Africa have prompted the US to issue a global security alert and close down a number of embassies in the MENA region.
Analysis: The global travel warning was issued on 4 August, and is a response a number of developments. Among those developments is a marked increase in intercepted communications among al-Qaeda figures of higher rank alluding to a potential attack in the MENA region against US or Western interests. The US is also extending the closure of a number of its MENA embassies through 10 August. The global travel warning has been issued until 31 August. A series of high-profile prison breaks in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya have also added to the alarm and played a part in the issuance of the global travel warning. In these prison breaks, hundreds of suspected Sunni radical fighters have been freed. In Yemen, American, British and French diplomatic staff have been evacuated, as this is the main venue for US drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets and these strikes will now be increased. These attacks will target Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In the Sahel region, it is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates that Western forces are battling, but these intertwine with radical Sunni forces that the US actually has a loose alliance with first in Libya and now in Syria to fight the Assad regime. Thus, it is only Yemen at this point where a concerted attack against al-Qaeda-linked forces can take place.
Elsewhere it would upset the conflict in Syria in favor of the regime.
Recommendation: While intelligence groups will point out that these vague global travel warnings are more precautionary than anything and that there is rarely an attack during these times, we are inclined to be concerned about the situation in Egypt as a particular trigger for an attack against Western interests in the MENA region. The perceived level of support for the 3 July military coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood is a key grievance among radical Islamic groups, and also will tie in to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The rise in the level of dangerous communications between high-ranking al-Qaeda members has risen in tandem with developments in Egypt, and we believe the potential for a terrorist attack on Western interests in the region is indeed high.
But preparing for a potential attack across an entire region, and from a host of radical affiliates, is impossible outside of the temporary closure of embassies. Businesses operating anywhere in the region should remain on high alert for the rest of the month and follow developments in Egypt and Syria particularly closely. At the same time, the US is setting the stage here for attacks on Yemen as a distractor from its domestic surveillance scandal (this is a common use for the war on terror), and the warnings are real insomuch as an intensified drone campaign in Yemen (and also Pakistan) could foment a terrorist attack on Western interests itself.
The prison breaks in Iraq will add additional Sunni fighters to the Syrian theater, while the prison breaks in Libya will add to the growing instability in Tunisia, which shares a border. At this time, we are most concerned with oil and gas interests in Tunisia, near the border with Libya, as a potential target.