A recent terror warning from the US remains in effect, leading to the continued closure of many Western embassies beyond last weekend. Experts see the threat as troubling and fear that al Qaeda may be gaining strength.
"This is the largest threat alert we've seen in I think over a decade," Bruce Riedel told DW. The Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former member of the CIA is troubled, adding, "In fact, more posts closed overseas - not just American but now also European - and it's been extended through the entire month of August, which suggests that the threat is real. It's serious, and it's imminent."
The communications among the terror network al Qaeda's members that were intercepted by security officials are apparently comparable to messages exchanged ahead of the September 2001 attacks. The situation appears to be serious enough that the Obama administration reacted in two ways to it; first, by closing 21 US diplomatic missions overseas for the weekend and then extending most of the closures until August 10. The US State Department also issued a global travel warning. In the wake of the announcements, a number of European states, including Germany, also closed select embassies abroad.
NSA findings driving the alerts
American security officials confirmed to DW that the terror warnings can be traced back to discoveries made by the US National Security Agency (NSA), which has been under heavy criticism in recent weeks for its worldwide surveillance programs. The NSA was evidently able to read the content of emails or listen to telephone conversations.
On account of the large scale of the American government's reaction, experts presume that there may also have been an informant who confirmed the intelligence agency's suspicions. The relatively vague terror warning suggests that the US does not know exactly when and where the attacks are planned.
According to security experts, one possibility is that al Qaeda and its local supporters in the Arabian Peninsula are seeking revenge for three American drone strikes last week in Yemen in which nine people lost their lives. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri made statements that would support this view.
'More Al Qaeda cells than ever'
Bruce Riedel finds the discovery unsettling. "What we have seen today is what I call the third generation of al Qaeda or al Qaeda 3.0. The first generation was before 9/11," he says, explaining that the first generation preceded the September 11 attacks, while the second generation could be considered to be that between September 11 and Osama Bin Laden's death.
"The Arab awakening has produced chaos across much of the Arab world, and in that chaos, we now see Al Qaeda thriving, more diversified, more localized," the security expert said.
Ultimately, it's a situation that has led to a sobering result, Riedel believes: "I think it is safe to say that there are probably more al Qaeda cells and al Qaeda affiliates in the Arab World in 2013 than there have ever been before."
Recent reports of massive jail breaks by suspected extremists in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya have put Western security officials further on edge. Those escapes led the international police organization Interpol to issue a global terror warning.
Joseph Wippl, a former CIA member and international relations professor at Boston University, notes that the jail breaks confirmed Al Qaeda's propensity for acts of that scale as well as "that there are people in these various governments who are favorably inclined toward extremism and probably had help in allowing these prisoners to escape from their prisons."
However, Wippl added, "I don't think the threat right now is directly connected with the freeing of those prisonrs."
An intentional distraction?
The public debate in the US, including in Congress, as well as in Europe has included the suspicion that the Obama administration is using the terror warning to distract from the NSA's controversial surveillance activities.
"I don't think that the terror threat has been manufactured by the administration," said Bruce Riedel, "but I do think the terror threat is a useful reminder that there is a real threat out there and that we therefore need to have appropriate countermeasures."
Joseph Wippl agrees that it's unlikely the measures represent a purely political maneuver, if not solely because the administration would risk losing much of its credibility.
The experienced security expert has the following advice for travelers in light of Washington's far-reaching terror warnings, "I would not recommend that anyone cancel their trip to anywhere in the world. The only thing I recommend is that they not go into areas that are dangerous for tourists. In other words, don't run around the Yemeni desert or go hiking in the Iraqi mountains or go on some of this wild tourism that both Americans and Europeans like to do."