WASHINGTON -- American diplomatic outposts reopened throughout the Middle East on Sunday, easing the sense of imminent danger that has preoccupied the Obama administration since it learned of a possible terrorist attack from communications between two high-ranking officials of Al Qaeda two weeks ago.
But the one embassy that remained closed -- in Sana, the capital of Yemen -- underscored the challenges President Obama faces in trying to wind down the nation's decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and reshape the nation's counterterrorism strategy.
In response to the latest threat, the United States has unleashed a barrage of drone strikes in that impoverished country, but it is unclear to what extent it has reduced the persistent and deadly threat from an increasingly decentralized Qaeda organization. The United States has carried out nine strikes in Yemen since July 28, broadening its target list beyond the high-level leaders it has always said are the main objective of the attacks.
Senior American counterterrorism and intelligence officials say the lack of certainty about the effectiveness of the latest drone strikes is a sobering reminder of the limitations of American power to deal with the array of new security threats the turmoil of the Arab Spring has produced. These doubts come even as lawmakers in Washington debate whether to restrict the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency. And Yemen is not their only concern.
Recently, American officials have also expressed heightened fears about an emerging Qaeda affiliate in Syria; prison breaks in Pakistan, Libya and Iraq that have set free hundreds of potential terrorists; an apparent inability to arrest Libyan suspects indicted in connection with the lethal attack on the American mission in Benghazi last year; and a new sanctuary in southern Libya for extremists across North and West Africa. "Terrorists now have the largest area of safe haven and operational training that they've had in 10 years," John E. McLaughlin, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told a security forum in Aspen, Colo., last month.
Mr. Obama acknowledged these challenges at his news conference on Friday, noting that while Al Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan had been "decimated," the terrorist organization has "metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers." He insisted that this development did not contradict his assertion in his May speech that the struggle against terrorism had fundamentally changed. In that speech at the National Defense University, he offered a path to wind down the war against terrorists, a campaign against a lethal yet less able network of regional Qaeda affiliates launching "periodic attacks against Western diplomats, companies and other soft targets." He also warned of homegrown extremists like the Tsarnaev brothers who are accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon attacks.
Mr. Obama also said in May that targeted killing operations needed to be tightly limited.
The United States carries out strikes only against terrorists who pose a "continuing and imminent threat" to Americans, he said, and only when it is determined it would be impossible to detain them, rather than kill them. But the increased reliance on drones in Yemen suggests the limit of the resources the United States can employ in combating the new threats.
A senior American official said over the weekend that the most recent terrorist threat "expanded the scope of people we could go after" in Yemen.
"Before, we couldn't necessarily go after a driver for the organization; it'd have to be an operations director," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate intelligence issues. "Now that driver becomes fair game because he's providing direct support to the plot."
Senior American intelligence officials said last week that none of the about three dozen militants killed so far in the drone strikes were "household names," meaning top-tier leaders of the affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But the American official said the strikes had targeted "rising stars" in the Yemen network, people who were more likely to be moving around and vulnerable to attack. "They may not be big names now," the official said, "but these were the guys that would have been future leaders."
Yet just how effective the strikes have been is unclear. In the past several years, the drone strikes have set off a major public backlash against the United States in Yemen, Pakistan and across the Muslim world, prompting in part Mr. Obama's decision to constrain their use.
The administration has been criticized by some analysts for overreacting to the threat in Yemen, but intelligence officials now believe they have evidence that at least one target was the United States Embassy in Sana.
That is not the only obstacle American efforts must confront in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Security analysts also note that many of the Arab spy services that the United States relied on in the past in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have been upended in the political turmoil, robbing the C.I.A. and American intelligence of long-trusted allies.
"U.S. intelligence has drastically lost its influence over Arab intelligence partners as a consequence of the Arab awakening and, more worryingly, its intelligence probing capability," said Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in Stockholm. "Without a longer-term U.S. strategy that builds capacity in key countries, counterterrorism is effectively reduced to tackling the superficial symptoms and to putting out perpetual terrorist fires," he said.
But developments in the past week or so are testing the American ability to respond effectively to the more diffuse threat, as well as the administration's strategy to help strengthen regional allies to fight extremists on their soil so the United States does not have to send in troops to do so.
Earlier this month, Interpol issued a global alert asking member countries to help track hundreds of terrorism suspects who escaped in a wave of prison breaks over the past month, and requesting assistance in determining whether any of the operations "are coordinated or linked."
Al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate orchestrated attacks in late July that freed hundreds of inmates from two prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib, American officials said. A few days later, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped under murky circumstances at a prison near Benghazi. In another attack, fighters stormed a prison at Dera Ismail Khan, just outside Pakistan's tribal belt, freeing nearly 250 inmates.
"The escapes don't dramatically increase the risk to the U.S. homeland, but they illustrate the difficulty of combating regional Al Qaeda affiliates -- both because those organizations are resilient and U.S. partners are unable to even keep captured fighters locked up," said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism analyst at the New America Foundation.
Also this month, federal law enforcement authorities filed murder charges against Ahmed Abu Khattala, a prominent militia leader in Benghazi, in connection with the attacks on a diplomatic mission there last Sept. 11 that killed the United States ambassador and three other Americans.
Roughly a dozen other militants that the authorities believe joined in the assault have also been identified, and charges under seal have been filed against some of them, according to American officials.
Investigators have made only halting progress on the case, leading some F.B.I. agents in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to voice frustration that there have been no arrests so far, the officials said. Capturing the suspects will most likely require significant negotiations between the State Department and the Libyan government over who will conduct any raids and where the suspects will be tried. The military's Joint Special Operations Command has drafted plans to capture or kill the suspects, but for now that option has been set aside, Pentagon officials said.
In the same region, the United States and its allies are still hunting for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January seizure of an Algerian gas plant that left at least 37 foreign hostages dead, including three Americans.
A potential new center for Al Qaeda's operations may be developing in Syria. As foreign fighters pour into Syria at an increasing clip -- now estimated at more than 6,000 combatants -- extremist groups are carving out pockets of territory that are becoming havens for Islamist militants, posing what United States and Western intelligence officials say may be developing into one of the biggest terrorist threats in the world today. Mr. Obama acknowledged these emerging threats on Friday. "We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism," he said. "What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.