Prompted by the closure of embassies in West Asia and North Africa, questions are being raised if the Obama administration was too quick earlier to declare Al Qaeda decimated.
President Barack Obama and his senior aides often described Al Qaeda “decimated” or “defeated” after bin Laden’s death in May 2011, especially during the re-election campaign.
But how has a diminished or decimated outfit forced the US to shutter 19 embassies for a week and issue a rare alert for its citizens traveling to West Asia and Africa?
The White House has tried to push back arguing for the need to distinguish Al Qaeda’s “core” leadership from its affiliates such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The Al Qaeda core stands “diminished” and its leadership “decimated”, said White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday, defending the administration’s position.
But, he quoted Obama from an earlier speech to argue the administration has always maintained “there has been an emergence of various Al Qaeda affiliates”.
Few security experts see it that way.
“The claims of Al Qaeda's defeat were just plain wrong,” said Bruce Riedel, former CIA officer who once advised President Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“It suffered some blows in Pakistan from the drones but even there it is still very dangerous. In the Arab world it is thriving due to the failure of the Arab awakening.”
And it’s to that part of the world -- West Asia -- that the United States’s current terror alert has been traced, based on intercepts of communication between Al Qaeda leaders.
The trigger was communication from Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahri, based somewhere in Pakistan-Afghanistan, ordering AQAP chief Nasr Al Wuhayshi, in Yemen, to stage attacks.
Al Qaeda’s role is also widely suspected in daring jailbreaks in the past month in Pakistan, Libya and Iraq freeing many Al Qaeda operatives, in military style operations.
That certainly doesn’t sound like an organisation in trouble.
RAND terrorism expert Seth G Jones said, in a blog, Al Qaeda experienced “a net expansion in the number and geographic scope of Al Qaeda affiliates and allies” in the past decade.
“Al Qaeda and its brand are far from defeated,” he concluded.
SpeciAlly AQAP. It has been behind some of the most talked-about attempts yet: Christmas bomber of 2009, and bombs smuggled aboard a US bound cargo plane in 2010.
Wuhayshi, its current chief, was once private secretary to Osama bin Laden, by the terror-in-chief’s side for many years in Afghanistan. He has now moved up the hierarchy.
Yemen is understood to be the likely target this time.
The US state department said on Tuesday it was removing all non-emergency staff from its embassy in Sana’a.
And the Obama administration is reported to have ordered several drone strikes in the last 10 days -- after a long gap -- to try to disrupt terror plans underway.
Is this the start of a new phase in the war against terrorism?