Updated: September 10, 2013 6:22AM
Let’s see if I’ve got this right: The world has been transfixed for weeks over the controversy about U.S. intelligence surveillance of phones and emails, but leaders of al-Qaida still use electronic communications to plot terrorist attacks? Then, just in case the terrorist chieftains missed the uproar over the potential for massive eavesdropping, the U.S. government lets it be known that our spies listened in on their conversation?
You add the punch line: Dumb and dumber. You can’t make this stuff up. Truth is stranger than fiction.
Or is there more going on here?
Here’s what we know. Last weekend, the Obama administration ordered embassies and consulates closed in nearly two dozen countries in the Middle East and north Africa out of fear of a terrorist attack. Officials cited “chatter” about an attack that was on the level of the chatter that preceded the 9/11 atrocity, which left 3,000 Americans dead and New York’s World Trade Center in ruins.
If that wasn’t enough evidence that something foul was afoot, sources — “American officials” is how the New York Times described them — leaked word that Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s global leader, ordered Nassar al-Wuhayshi, boss of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabia Peninsula, to carry out the attack and that U.S. intelligence intercepted those electronic communications.
If terrorists communicate in a way that we can hear, but they don’t know we’re listening, it would seem a bad idea to tell them. After all, isn’t Bradley Manning facing a long prison term, Julian Assange holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London and Edward Snowden seeking asylum anywhere because the Obama administration says they leaked information that aids our enemies?
Then again, what if al-Zawahri knew our spies were listening — how could he not know? — and fed us a line about an attack to create panic and havoc? Speculation like that is making the rounds of the blogoshere.
The rationale behind this notion is that the administration is anxious, to put it mildly, not to have another Benghazi — the terrorist attack last year that left four Americans dead, one of them an ambassador — and that has developed into a scandal over poor security in Libya, a perceived failure to come to the aid of Americans under attack, and a possible attempt at a cover-up.
So the chatter and intercepted attack talk close embassies and have the United States and Britain pull “non-emergency” personnel from Yemen, the epicenter of the threat. Yemen issues, then seems to pull back, a claim that its oil facilities have been targeted. Britain warns of possible maritime attacks in the seas off Yemen. The U.S. consulate in Milan, Italy, is briefly evacuated after a bomb threat. All this is coming amid news reports about the threats to Western targets in the Middle East and, ominously, “potentially beyond.”
In short, a lot of turmoil and panic were created without any fanatic having to detonate a suicide vest.
Still, the country’s security officials have no choice but to treat the threat as real. Indeed, a bipartisan consensus in Washington sees the threat as genuine. And the record is clear that Islamist barbarians exult in bloodshed, not the threat of it.
But what we’ve seen doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Yemen’s president protests that “the evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists.” Others also see an over-reaction. Administration critics complain that a perception of U.S. weakness and America in retreat is reinforced. And President Barack Obama sounds a bit less than 100 percent persuasive when he asserts: “We don’t get terrorized.”