Tuesday August 6 was a day of drama, filled with a rush of reports on an imminent Al Qaeda attack on US targets. US military cargo planes landed in Sanaa to evacuate the few remaining Americans and Britons still in Yemen. New York and San Francisco saw police forces in counter-terror mode.
The precise trigger of the global terror alert, which initially closed more than a score of embassies and consulates across the Middle East – from Mauritania to Bangladesh – was as vague as its geography. This provided fertile ground for speculation, which varied from one US media outlet to the next.
That afternoon, US intelligence agencies also posted warnings to their counterterrorism contacts in the West and Arab countries to stand by for a major al Qaeda attack starting Wednesday, Aug. 7 at 7:30 PM.
Its addressees studied the wording of the messages and then decided not to respond. They were not convinced.
Saudi Arabia added no special security measures to those already in place for protecting US interests, oil facilities, arrivals and departures at Saudi airports and members of the royal family.
The Emirates aligned with Riyadh followed its lead.
Even Yemen, the primary stronghold and battlefield of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the purported source of the forthcoming terrorist offensive, quietly ignored the dramatic hype and put no extra special security in place.
The don’t knows mount as al Qaeda sites fall silent
Then, Tuesday night, the Yemeni Embassy in Washington grumpily criticized the US decision to evacuate its embassy staff and citizens from its country as "serving the interests of the extremists and undermining the exceptional cooperation" between Yemen and the international community in the fight against terrorism. While appreciating the concern of foreign governments for their citizens, the Sanaa government insisted it had taken every precaution to ensure the security of foreign missions in the capital.
Israel too saw no reason to redouble its security. When US officials were asked why they were closing the embassy in Tel Aviv, a fortified building guarded closely by Israeli security personnel, they answered that Washington preferred not to discuss the matter.
The German BND spy agency and counterterrorism services informed Chancellor Angela Merkel that they had no knowledge of any wide-scale al Qaeda attack in the offing as claimed by the Americans.
Neither did the Netherlands BVD General Intelligence and Security Service corroborate US reports when questioned from The Hague. The BVD would have known, since its penetration of the various al Qaeda organizations is second to none among any Western clandestine agencies, including the Americans.
Adding to the bafflement, the internal Islamist websites had suddenly fallen silent Monday Aug. 5. Total hush replaced the interminable chatter about the Western targets most worth while attacking. It is still in force on the known sites as we write this.
Three likely triggers
Al Qaeda experts tracking these sites concluded that Islamist tacticians saw the Americans doing their work for them by spreading terrorist hysteria more effectively on a scale that had been beyond their resources. So why spoil the game?
But what actually drove the Obama administration to mount its global terror alert across two continents – not counting the American homeland? Seasoned Western, Arab and Israeli watchers discern three likely motivations:
1. The Benghazi syndrome. September 11 will be the first anniversary of the Al Qaeda attack on the US Consulate in Libya and the murder of US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American staff members. The Obama administration has taken endless flak for failing to come clean to the American people on the truth of what happened in Benghazi. It cannot afford to let Al Qaeda commit a second Benghazi strike against another US embassy or consulate and so this time, nearly two dozen foreign missions were made ready.
2. The coming September 11 will also be the 12th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s deadliest terrorist attack ever on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have learned that US agencies were tipped off that Al Qaeda was planning to use passenger airliners again for its next attacks.
3. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was discovered whipping up a fresh terrorist momentum with directives to the various Al Qaeda geographical arms – especially AQIM-Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb and AQAP – to move away from large-scale spectacular attacks of the type orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and instead go for limited strikes on local and American targets.