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August 05, 2013 12:03 PM Warning to Americans: Be Afraid, Very Afraid

By Jeffrey Goldberg

It seems as if al-Qaeda, or its Arabian Peninsula branch, has succeeded in terrorizing the United States of America again, but this time without - as of this writing - detonating an ounce of C4. It doesn’t strike me as a wise idea to preemptively shutter 21 different American embassies across the Middle East and North Africa in response to NSA-collected terrorist chatter. What message does this post-Benghazi, “don’t say we didn’t tell you” move send to the citizens of the Middle East, who, it is our hope, understand the United States to be a powerful and fearless country dedicated to openness and to the defeat of fanaticism? We have already muddied any message of fearlessness by turning our embassies into bunkers. Now, we are admitting that these bunkers aren’t safe. What next? Virtual embassies on Facebook? Ambassadors who never leave Washington?

The Administration tells us that the heightened threat of al-Qaeda terror extends through the end of the month. Is the State Department going to keep its diplomatic fortresses closed through September 1? Late this afternoon, State announced that 19 diplomatic posts are going to stay closed until August 10; others, including those in Baghdad, and Kabul, of all places, are scheduled to reopen Monday. It is unclear if these closings will be extended, or if the reopening embassies and consulates will again be closed. It could be that many of our diplomats — who, by the way, are still living in the target countries, just in less secure locations, generally, than embassy compounds - will not be at work for awhile.

It is plausible that the intelligence community is fearful of this weekend in particular, because, as Bloomberg’s Nicole Gaouette and David Lerman have noted, Sunday is the Muslim holiday known as the Night of Power, and al-Qaeda-type extremists sometimes mark important holidays on the Muslim calendar by trying to kill people. So after the holiday passes, things could return to normal. It will be interesting to watch how the State Department manages this crisis - and, this time, it is being managed directly out of Washington. Usually, diplomatic posts are allowed to make their own judgments about security, independent of State Department headquarters. Not any more.

It will also be interesting to watch whether State clarifies its travelers’ alert to the American public. A couple of days ago, the department issued a warning to American travelers that was notable both for its implied dread and its maddening vagueness: “Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests,’ the warning reads. “U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services. U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.”

As a public service, let me translate this warning for you: “Dear U.S. citizen: So, it turns out that al-Qaeda has not been defeated. In fact, its operatives want to kill you. Mainly, they want to kill you if you happen to be in one of the following 21 countries. Also, by the way, they want to kill you in the U.S., but right now let’s not talk about that, and focus on the immediate threat. We don’t know where, when or how al-Qaeda is going to try to kill you - probably August, if it makes you feel any better. In the past, al-Qaeda terrorists have targeted planes, trains, and automobiles, as well as large buildings, and small buildings. Also, boats. Our suggestion is that you not leave your hotel. And stay out of the lobby! Lobbies are dangerous. Actually, come to think of it, al-Qaeda has also targeted hotels in the past, so maybe you should just leave your hotel now, but through the kitchen, or the service entrance. But try to avoid people, and also places where there are people, once you have left your hotel. If you want to come home, please do so, but just be very careful at the airport. Thank you for your attention to this matter.”

In truth, the State Department is in a tough spot: If it doesn’t publicly issue warnings, and something dreadful, God forbid, does happen, the Obama Administration will be blamed by opportunists for not telling Americans they were in danger. But perhaps there is a way to issue these warnings in way that doesn’t fear-monger, and in a way that helps Americans make informed decisions. And perhaps there is a way to manage diplomatic security so as to avoid conveying to the world the idea that al-Qaeda can unhinge us quite so easily.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View, and a senior editor at The Atlantic.
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