The Obama administration's decision Sunday to shutter nearly two dozen U.S. diplomatic posts has given jihadists something to celebrate: a sense that America still sees them as a serious threat.
Despite the plot being thwarted, many supporters of al-Qaida and other terror groups believe the very fact that President Barack Obama was forced to shutter embassies, consulates, and posts throughout the Middle East and Africa — most through Saturday — was a victory in itself, according to The New York Times
"God is great! America is in a condition of terror and fear from al-Qaida," wrote one jihadist in an online forum, according to the Times. "The mobilization and security precautions are costing them billions of dollars. We hope to hear more of such psychological warfare, even if there are no actual jihadi operations on the ground."
And while lawmakers initially lauded the move as an appropriate response
to a credible threat, some officials are now questioning whether it makes America look weak in the war against terrorism. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican, went so far as to say the move makes the United States look like "a bunch of cowards
Others, meanwhile, wonder whether there was enough evidence to indicate an imminent terror plot, especially after Obama's assertions that al-Qaida had been rendered practically impotent
"The impression the administration left was that al-Qaida was dead or close to dead," Bruce Riedel, a former CIA case officer and a Brookings Institution scholar, told the Times. "In which case, why are we so worried about a conversation between two al-Qaida leaders?"
The decision to close the diplomatic posts was said to initially have been based on an intercepted conversation between Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaida, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. It has since been reported that up to 20 al-Qaida operatives — nicknamed the Legion of Doom — were actually on a conference call.
Officials have suggested the conversation indicated one of the most serious terrorist plots against Western interests since the September 11, 2001 attacks, according to the Times.
But the paper says the conversation was vague, and some officials say the administration may have overreacted, a decision that has now cost the U.S. credibility.
"Since Benghazi, the administration has been in a defense crouch, and they are playing it as safe as they can," Will McCants, a former State Department counterterrorism official, told the Times.
The decision to close embassies was also criticized by allies in the region. Yemen's president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi was in Washington at the time, meeting with Obama.
"When you do evacuations, you signal that all the effort to build up trust in the Yemeni security establishment amounts to nothing," one disgruntled Yemeni official told the Times.
But some defend the decision, saying there had been a recent growing body of intercepted communications that suggested an imminent threat, and believe it is better to overreact than have a repeat of last September's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
"It's a very high-threat environment with al-Qaida right now because of the quality, quantity and seriousness of the intelligence we're getting," one congressional official who receives regular updates from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency told the Times.
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