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08/12/2013

Rwanda Terror Alert: "I wish I had a clue!"

Still confused about this month's terror alert that prompted the closure of 19 U.S. embassies across Africa, Asia and the Middle East? (All re-opened Sunday but the embassy in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. The consulate in Lahore is also closed reportedly due to a separate "credible threat").

Well, you're not alone in wondering why it was business as usual in diplomatic missions in Kabul and Baghdad, while Rwanda's U.S. embassy in Kigali was closed as part of a threat reportedly emanating from Yemen's Al Qaeda branch.

Rwanda's president Paul Kagame answered a tweet that asked, "Why Rwanda?"

"Bothers me too," Kagame responded. "I wish I had a clue.. !"


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The embassy closure in Rwanda is just one factor that remains unclear about the worldwide travel alert issued by the U.S. State Department Aug. 2.

The only interview U.S. President Barack Obama has given on the issue was to comedian Jay Leno on NBC's The Tonight Show. Obama said the threat was "significant enough that we're taking every precaution." But he also played down the alert and embassy closures, saying Americans were more likely to be killed in a car accident than terrorist attack. "Terrorists depend on the idea that we're going to be terrorized," Obama said. "We're going to live our lives."

Now the focus turns exclusively to Yemen, where, life does not continue as usual due to the spike in U.S. drone attacks that coincided with the heightened alert.

A U.S. official told the New York Times' Eric Schmitt that the recent threat - prompted by a purported intercept of communications between Yemen's Al Qaeda leader Nasser al-Wahishi and Al Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri - "expanded the scope of people we could go after" in Yemen.

The official continued: “Before, we couldn’t necessarily go after a driver for the organization; it’d have to be an operations director. Now that driver becomes fair game because he’s providing direct support to the plot.” (Sidebar: The first Guantanamo military commission prosecution was for Al Qaeda driver, Salim Hamdan, who was convicted, but then had the decision overturned). 

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to Schmitt, called those killed in the recent strikes "rising stars" in the group and "future leaders."

Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who is considered Yemen's foremost Al Qaeda researcher told me in an interview last week that most of those killed were recent recruits and "foot soldiers." He also said civilians were among the dead.

 

Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm

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