A police trooper checks a car in Sanaa on Monday. (AP)
Washington, Aug. 12: American diplomatic outposts reopened throughout West Asia yesterday, easing the sense of imminent danger that has preoccupied the Obama administration since it learned of a possible terrorist attack from communications between two high-ranking officials of al Qaida two weeks ago.
But the one embassy that remained closed — in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen — underscored the challenges President Obama faces in trying to wind down the nation’s decade-long campaign against al Qaida and its affiliates, and reshape the nation’s counterterrorism strategy.
In response to the latest threat, the US has unleashed a barrage of drone strikes in that impoverished country, but it is unclear to what extent it has reduced the persistent and deadly threat from an increasingly decentralised Qaida organisation. The US has carried out nine strikes in Yemen since July 28, broadening its target list beyond the high-level leaders it has always said are the main objective of the attacks.
Senior American counterterrorism and intelligence officials say the lack of certainty about the effectiveness of the latest drone strikes is a sobering reminder of the limitations of American power to deal with the array of new security threats the turmoil of the Arab Spring has produced.
These doubts come even as lawmakers in Washington debate whether to restrict the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency. And Yemen is not their only concern.
Recently, American officials have also expressed heightened fears about an emerging Qaida affiliate in Syria; prison breaks in Pakistan, Libya and Iraq that have set free hundreds of potential terrorists; an apparent inability to arrest Libyan suspects indicted in connection with the lethal attack on the American mission in Benghazi last year; and a new sanctuary in southern Libya for extremists across North and West Africa. “Terrorists now have the largest area of safe haven and operational training that they’ve had in 10 years,” John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a security forum in Aspen, Colorado, last month.
Obama acknowledged these challenges at his news conference on Friday, noting that while al Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan had been “decimated”, the terrorist organisation has “metastasised into regional groups that can pose significant dangers”.
He insisted that this development did not contradict his assertion in his May speech that the struggle against terrorism had fundamentally changed. In that speech at the National Defence University, he offered a path to wind down the war against terrorists, a campaign against a lethal yet less able network of regional Qaida affiliates launching “periodic attacks against western diplomats, companies and other soft targets”.
He also warned of homegrown extremists like the Tsarnaev brothers.
Obama also said in May that targeted killing operations needed to be tightly limited. The US carries out strikes only against terrorists who pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, he said.