Suicide bombers attack Turkish embassy staff in Somalia. A rocket-propelled grenade slams into the United Arab Emirates’s embassy in Libya. Nine people are killed when three men try to storm an Indian consulate in Afghanistan.
Those recent incidents didn’t make nearly as much news as this weekend’s pre-emptive U.S. response to intelligence reports of a planned al-Qaeda attack: a wide-ranging travel warning and the closing of 19 U.S. diplomatic facilities through Aug. 10. Yet they still offer a useful lens on the best way to counter a changing terrorist threat.
The first thing they tell us is that while the U.S. may be an exceptional, if not “indispensable,” nation, it has plenty of company as a terrorist target. In Yemen, for instance, France, Germany and the U.K. also decided to close their embassies. And for diplomats from other nations, the threat of mayhem has become just another day in the office.
The second thing these attacks bring to mind is that it’s a mistake to define “al-Qaeda” as a single entity directed from above; it’s long been a collection of loose networks with a shared ideology and a willingness to exchange “best practices.” The recent prison breaks that led to the freeing of hundreds of militants in Pakistan, Iraq and Libya are cases in point: They may not have been coordinated, but they did follow similar tactics and have similar goals.
Finally, these attacks and prison raids point as much to the weakness of states as the strength of terrorists. Even if countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen were more committed to protecting diplomatic facilities and stopping prison raids, in many cases they lack the wherewithal to do so. For the foreseeable future, the West will be dealing with a bloc of weak states. The Long War will slide into the Long Unease.
It’s worth remembering that the security of diplomatic facilities ultimately rests with their host countries. If they can’t or won’t provide it, then curtailing diplomatic representation seems like a prudent option -- in the latter case, with the pressure of reciprocal cuts imposed on their own representation.
Likewise, outsiders can’t do much to prevent prison breaks -- especially in the case of U.S. relations with Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. For all the strengths of the U.S.’s Supermax prisons, exporting them probably won’t win many hearts and minds. One thing the U.S. can do is continue holding off on sending back to Yemen any of the 56 Yemeni detainees at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay camp who are now eligible for transfer or release.
More broadly, al-Qaeda’s evolution will call for a more discerning effort on the part of the U.S. and its allies. Not every group that claims al-Qaeda’s mantle is worthy of attention. And very few of the hundreds of prisoners set loose recently from Abu Ghraib (now known as Baghdad Central Prison), or the 1,000-plus from Benghazi’s Al-Kufiya prison, will ever directly threaten the U.S. or its allies.
On the other hand, continued turmoil in Iraq, Syria and Libya, let alone Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, serves no one’s interests but the militants’. The challenge ahead is to engage the attention and effort of more countries -- an energy-hungry China, for instance -- to promote regional stability. The U.S. can’t close up diplomatic shop and walk away from the Middle East’s trouble spots. But it also can’t stay there alone.
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