In the rhetorical churn of his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama last year boasted he had put al-Qaida "on the path to defeat." Now his administration is engaged in a painfully ironic acknowledgment of that boast's overreach.
Rattled by credible threats of attacks coming from the highest levels of the terror organization, the White House has ordered the closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic missions across the Middle East, Africa and Asia at least until tomorrow, and issued severe travel warnings to U.S. travelers to those regions.
Tuesday, federal authorities investigating the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi said they filed charges against Ahmed Khattalah, leader of a Libyan militia closely linked to the al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa.
So, is al-Qaida back on our terror radar screen? In fairness, it never really went away, despite the assassination of its iconic leader, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan in 2011, and the lethal drone strikes against dozens of its key commanders in Pakistan and Yemen. Over time, al-Qaida has morphed into a different type of threat. Like a geopolitical cancer that appeared to have gone into remission, al-Qaida has metastasized instead into other parts of the global body politic.
In North Africa, al-Qaida in the Maghreb has shown itself in the Benghazi assault last year, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and in the stunning takeover of nearly half of Mali's territory, eventually turned back earlier this year by French troops.
In the Syrian revolt, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, drawing from its experience battling U.S. troops in the Iraq War, has successfully reinforced the rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad regime and it's feared it may ultimately control them.
In Yemen, al-Qaida has established what U.S. intelligence considers to be its most dangerous offshoot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. It's to AQAP that Ayman al-Zawahri, successor to bin Laden, sent the intercepted message to attack U.S. and other Western assets in Muslim lands -- which led to the current closure of U.S. embassies.
AQAP is known to use a master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi national who engineered the failed underwear and printer-cartridge bombs discovered before they could explode. He is suspected of having experimented with new, undetectable suicide bombs planted surgically in humans, and having already tested them successfully on dogs.
It's in Yemen that U.S. drone strikes aimed at degrading the AQAP leadership have soared -- from 18 in 2011 to 53 in 2012 -- according to the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. And it's in Yemen that AQAP writes and edits its online English-language magazine, Inspire, aimed at potential jihadists around the world. In the Yemeni capital, San'a, Britain, France and Germany have shut their embassies, while the U.S. Air Force flew out all nonessential American personnel Tuesday. Wednesday, Yemen officials announced they had foiled an al-Qaida plot to attack ports and gas facilities.
This morphing of the al-Qaida organization appears to have shifted the focus of its threat away from the U.S. mainland and toward U.S. assets in Muslim lands. Has al-Qaida gone local, instead of global? Perhaps. According to a number of reports, the most recent in the BBC, Zawahiri, now in charge of al-Qaida central, always thought it was more cost-effective to strike U.S. embassies in Muslim regions that to attempt new attacks in the United States.
Whether al-Qaida actually carries out an attack now doesn't matter in the end. The embassy closures were a sensible precaution, even if critics say they amount to an overreaction to nonspecific threats that in the past have rarely proved credible. But a nagging thought remains: If vague threats can lead to a disruptive shutdown of dozens of embassies, does that mean the terrorists have won a symbolic victory? It certainly means that al-Qaida is once again being taken very seriously, even in a non-election year.
Adrian Peracchio, a former foreign correspondent and editorial writer for Newsday, is a lecturer at LIU Post's Hutton House Lectures program.