- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
As new details have emerged about the terrorist threat that forced the closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic posts and the evacuation of American and British personnel from Yemen, officials have repeatedly raised alarms about how remarkably specific this particular threat was — in terms of the size and timing of the planned attack (administration officials are telling reporters that the alert originated with intercepted communications between al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). But specifics about the intended target of the attack have yet to leak.
Still, based on the U.S. response to the threat and AQAP’s track record, it wouldn’t be surprising if U.S. embassies were discussed. According to the private U.S. counterterrorism intelligence company IntelCenter, AQAP has mentioned the United States in its messages 16 times this year alone — making America far and away AQAP’s favorite target. (In comparison, the second-most threatened country, Yemen, has only been mentioned eight times, followed by France with six mentions.)
In a separate analysis, IntelCenter found that AQAP has publicly discussed attacking embassies seven times since December 2009. Last September, in a statement issued shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, AQAP praised the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and urged others to emulate the attack: "[W]henever a Muslim gets hold of US ambassadors or delegates, he has the best example in the act of the grandsons of Omar Mukhtar in Libya — who slaughtered the US ambassador — may Allah reward them. Let the step of expelling embassies and consulates be a milestone to free the Muslim lands from the American domination and arrogance."
AQAP went further in December 2012, announcing bounties for lone-wolf assassins who kill the U.S. ambassador or military personnel. For the death of U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, AQAP promised "3,000 grams of gold" (a quick check of the price of gold puts this at about $123,000), and $5 million Yemeni rials ($23,250) for U.S. soldiers.
The most recent threat came in April 2013, as Yemen began its National Dialogue, an ongoing conference to resolve the conflicts between the country’s political, tribal, and religious factions in advance of the formation of a new government next year. The statement was made by Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, AQAP’s chief theologian, who is increasingly the public face of AQAP — he announced the death of AQAP’s deputy emir last month and is a possible replacement for the vacant No. 2 position in the organization. On Monday, the Yemeni government placed Rubaysh at the top of a new watchlist of active AQAP operatives. "The US ambassador rudely spoke in order to show us who is welcomed, or who is not, to this dialogue," Rubaysh said in April, according to IntelCenter. "This clearly shows that the country is run from inside the US Embassy [and] … the interest of the ummah lies in implementing God’s sharia and ridding itself of the occupiers from the lands of Muslims whether they are from among the Crusaders or from among their agents from our fellow countrymen."
U.S. officials have not discussed whether the messages they intercepted specifically targeted U.S. embassies, but it’s clear these diplomatic posts are in AQAP’s crosshairs.