Calling Seal Team 7. al Qaeda's too-long leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is thought to be still hiding out in another Abbottabad in Pakistan, is up to deadly mischief by issuing three communications last week: two public and the third -- a highly lethal secret correspondence directing an attack on U.S. embassies in the Middle East and South Asia.
The leaked intercept from al Qaeda's chief to his al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Yemeni lieutenant -- Nasser al-Wuhayshi -- is a grim wake-up call that al-Zawahiri is exerting a modicum of stewardship over al Qaeda's far flung franchises despite being on the lamb longer than Bin Laden.
Al Zawahri's directive is -- by assessments derived from members of Congress briefed on the threat -- the most ominous and credible threat against U.S. interests in the Middle East since 9/11.
The intercepted communication, later revealed in the media, ordered al-Wuhayshi to deploy the bomb-making talents of Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri who has definitely mastered the ability to build undetectable bombs -- and there is nothing in our bomb-detecting arsenal to thwart al-Asiri's bombs...yet.
Al Zawahiri's untimely reassertion of leadership coincides with several other al Qaeda-related developments:
1. Despite relentless pounding by U.S. drone strikes, the most potent threat to the U.S. emanates from Yemen's AQAP headquarters despite our taking down the previous al Qaeda prince Al Awlaki.
2. Al Zawahri's is not the geriatric bloviating irrelevancy many had made him out to be in recent years -- he still can exert command and control authority over al Qaeda's far-flung regional cells.
3. al Qaeda's regional operatives throughout the Middle East and North Africa are likely benefiting from the bomb-making skills of al-Asiri, necessitating the closure of so many U.S. diplomatic installations.
4. Even if the relentless pounding of al Qaeda's central headquarters in Pakistan has taken its toll, its jihadi ideological gravitational pull is gaining a new generation of recruits in Iraq, Syria, the Sinai, and across North Africa and sub-saharan Africa.
5. The state of U.S. embassy and diplomatic personnel security demands more concerted, and objective, assessments by experts outside the confines of the Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security as explained further below.
The magnitude of the threat and the unprecedented State Department reaction to it (unprecedented closure of embassies and worldwide travel warnings) warrants greater focus on the state of U.S. embassy and embassy personnel security. Sure, as long as there is terrorism, there will be threats to the homeland and our assets abroad, so managing the risk while not downplaying or overplaying it is essential -- an ever-shifting objective.
Nevertheless, no one should be surprised that embassy security in the faces of these threats, is only as strong as its weakest link. Since 9/11 there have been no less than 17 attacks and attempted attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions -- mostly in the Middle East by al Qaeda or its supporters. Obviously, there may have been more attempts, which we do not know about.
Each attack prompts a post-assessment of any lapse in security that may have occurred by the State Department's Inspector General (SIG) -- and these reports are usually classified.
But a series of well-publicized and less publicized embassy security infractions in the past year alone -- in Turkey (a suicide bomber penetrated security in February and killed a security guard), in Afghanistan (a SIG report found that embassy security "posed an unnecessary risk to staff...", in Yemen (where the U.S. Embassy security chief was shot dead in October, 2012) raise fundamental questions not just of insufficient resources to enhance diplomatic mission security, but whether the State Department's Management Bureau and its Office of Diplomatic Security should continue to manage this critical responsibility without the objective and supportive oversight of experts who are far better trained in risk and security assessment and do not make decisions based on parochial bureaucratic histories or pretexts as the Behghazi security lapses prove.
The case for conducting this assessment by a blue ribbon panel of objective government and private sector experts is compelling. First, the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report on the Benghazi consulate attack attracted much criticism as being an "inside job" which did not go far enough to examine the fundamental challenges facing the State Department's security management decision makers. Second, Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer of the U.S. embassy in Libya testified before Congress under oath that he had been repeatedly rebuffed for more security support in Libya in the months leading up to the Benghazi attack for parochial bureaucratic reasons which may have been answered differently if independent experts had made the assessment on the merits. Third, decisions governing embassy security and diplomatic personnel security are being made by Foreign Service and civil service officers who have not/not had security expertise in their portfolio of duties and responsibilities during their many years in government. Finally, the entire "universe" of diplomatic security challenges has been under resourced and neglected by a State Department that has been unable to break out of the traditional mold of doing things the way it has been done time and again decades ago when threats were less asymmetrical. Case in point -- the bureaucratic cookie cutter failure to assess Nordstrom's pleas on the merits than dismissing them as unwarranted because they exceeded the Department's internal "threat assessment" for Libya.
It would come as a surprise to many Americans that the perimeter of embassies are largely "protected" by local civilian security company guards -- many of whom are unarmed and awarded the contract -- by existing law -- not on their capabilities, but on lowest bidder (that may be one fix in impending legislation). Or that the very small U.S. Marine detachment at any embassy only guards the internal perimeter of an embassy, and not necessarily all other diplomatic installations, residences, the ambassador or the embassy staff once outside the embassy. That most diplomatic personnel are not trained in basic security techniques, nor does staff have any security whatsoever. Or that there is no outside expert "second assessment" of security requests from the field to the State Department.
Secretary Kerry has committed to implement as rapidly as possible the recommendations arising from the Benghazi consulate attack. But the unprecedented embassy closures compel more from the government.
Now that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a very promising proposal to bolster embassy security last week, Congress should incorporate into it a requirement to create a bi-partisan panel to objectively assess not only the deficiencies and bureaucratic omissions in diplomatic security in all its incarnations, but whether the existing bureaucratic structure, managerial talent and expertise is adequate to the task.
American diplomats and other government employees who courageously serve their country abroad at dangerous posts are owed a tough, no-holes-barred independent assessment of the U.S. government's traditional way of managing embassy and diplomatic personnel security that is unafraid to tackle the assumptions that have driven embassy security decisions in the past. Not since the 9/11 Commission Report has there been any independent assessment that has tackled embassy security, and it is long overdue given the omissions and commissions which American diplomats have endured to date from decision-makers who are unable, or unwilling, to change the way business has been done in the past.