Intelligence Prompts U.S. Warning About Potential al Qaeda Terrorist Attacks
August 6, 2013 1:24 p.m.
Scott Peters, U.S. Congressman (D-CA), 52nd District
Ric Epps, Professor, Political Science, San Diego State University
CAVANAUGH: International travelers have reason to be cautious right now. A worldwide travel advisory was issued last week by the U.S. State Department warning Americans of the potential for terrorist attacks. The U.S. says the threat is particularly for regions in the Middle East and North Africa. So it's a sensitive time to be in the mid-east which is where we caught up with Congressman Scott Peters this here. He is on a delegation to meet with Middle East leaders. Your delegation left on this trip after the alert was issued. What precautions are you taking?
PETERS: Well, we asked a lot of questions about that, as you might expect before we left. The House of Representatives security, and Israeli security, and they seem pretty comfortable. So we've been here now about a day. And I don't see any of the particular threats that evident right now anyway.
CAVANAUGH: Did the State Department or anyone in the government try to talk this delegation, 37 members of Congress, out of taking a trip to the region at this time?
PETERS: No, not at all. They said it was fine. So I don't think this is one of the areas that they're worried about.
CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us why you're in Israel this week.
PETERS: Sure. Well, every other year, are the freshman class takes a trip to Israel to get oriented around the issues that are here. It's particularly useful for me for a couple of reasons. I'm a member of the armed services committee. And we've already taken some pretty important votes with respect to the iron dome missile defense system here. And it's really helpful to see the area. This is such a small territory, in terms of the size of the country. And the threats they face and the challenges they face are very literally up-close. So it's very helpful to get some perspective from people here on the ground about what they're facing, and what their choices are, and get their perspectives.
CAVANAUGH: Are you going to be meeting with leaders?
PETERS: Yes. As a matter of fact we just met with prime minister Netanyahu for about an hour. He took all our questions on Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and the peace process. Particularly concerned about Iran right now, and their march toward nuclear weapons capability. So it's a challenging time here.
CAVANAUGH: And are you going to be meeting with Palestinian leaders as well?
PETERS: I believe we are. We are intending to meet with representatives of the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah. One of the points of the trip is to really get a lot of perspective both from within the Israeli government, because they have a lot of different perspectives, different attitudes toward giving up land for peace. But also to hear different perspectives on the issues people face out here.
CAVANAUGH: To your knowledge have U.S. embassies and consulates reopened in Israel?
PETERS: I don't know about that. I hadn't heard about it. We haven't come into contact with it.
CAVANAUGH: What are your hopes for this trip? You're going there at a time when there's a worldwide travel advisory, you're pretty well protected because you're all members of Congress, and this is a preplanned trip. But I'm wondering, since it is a slight risk to be over there right now, what are your hopes, what do you hope to get out of this trip?
PETERS: I'm really hoping to get an understanding of some of the attitudes around the Middle East here. Obviously this is an area of critical importance for us. We spent over a trillion dollars on wars in this region. Israel is our most important ally here, and one of our most important allies in the world. So this is a really great opportunity over the course of a week to have some really focused discussions on how to approach issues like Iran's nuclear weapons or Syria or the convulsions that have happened in Syria and Egypt recently. And to get a perspective from up-close how that affects people and how it affects our own national security. So I'm just here to learn. I'd be happy to report back on more of it. But we had a tremendous day today hearing about perspectives on Israeli politics, the differences within the Israeli political factions, and also what they call the neighborhood challenges. Because each country represents a different kind of challenge for Israel, and it's really important for us to understand it.
CAVANAUGH: One more question about this worldwide travel alert. You spoke with government officials before you left. Your whole delegation did. Are there any plans to get the delegation out of the region should there be a terrorist attack in the region?
PETERS: You've asked a lot of questions about that, I just don't have is that sense that we're under that kind of a threat right now. Obviously the security in Israel is very high. Upon there's a lot more security coming into Israel than in other countries that I've travelled to. And I think they've got a pretty good beat on what's going on here. And I'm sure if something happens, that this is one place where they would have some contingency plans.
CAVANAUGH: One last question for you, when do you plan to return to San Diego?
PETERS: The week after this. And looking forward to getting back. I spent about 12 hours a week on a plane during the regular workweek, and I'm looking forward to sitting around enjoying home, talking to folks a little bit.
CAVANAUGH: I believe you have an appointment to be here with us too when you do get back.
PETERS: Oh, great! I look forward to that.
CAVANAUGH: There's a lot going on here now, in case you haven't heard.
PETERS: I haven't heard Bob Filner come up in one conversation here, which I guess you have to go halfway around the world to avoid that topic.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.
PETERS: Thank you, bye-bye.
CAVANAUGH: He represents the 52nd congressional district in San Diego. Joining me now is Ric Epps, a professor of political science at San Diego State university. Welcome to the program.
EPPS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: As you heard Congressman Peters doesn't feel much. A threat in Israel, but 19 U.S. embassies and consulates remain closed this week. I'm wondering what people headed overseas from here in San Diego some make of all this.
EPPS: Well, I think it's about being cautious. One of the things we have to be always aware of, and certainly since the Benghazi issue happened last year, that the government State Department, and the White House have been very cautious about making sure that citizens as well as embassy staff and consulate staff are kept much more apprised and are bent adept as being able to know when it's an appropriate time to leave and evacuate certainly areas. So I think it's a precautionary we have to take in this situation because of all the intel traffic that's flowing around.
CAVANAUGH: Apparently the communication is centered on Yemen. And we learned that Britain and U.S., airlifting their diplomatic staffs out of Yemen. They're advising all British and U.S. nationals to get out of the country. Is it fair to say, to assume that this is where the locus of whatever attack threat is coming from, Yemen?
EPPS: Well, the attack, this particular aspect is somewhat focused on Yemen. I wouldn't say it's entirely focused on Yemen because the communication traffic goes from the Arab peninsula all wait to this area. Yemen is a very poor country. And people don't really understand the context of countries that are vulnerable to Islamic extremists and the ideas they proffer. And this is what makes Yemen so problematic because it is such a poor country. And the head of the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen is because of the drone attack that killed four of their operatives on Tuesday is obviously a focal point of this aspect. So it becomes a very troubling time. And certainly because of our ability to get access to that country, it allows for us to do a little bit better job than in some centuries, being able to insulate it from outside issues and outside potential problems from other areas.
CAVANAUGH: What's the rationale of closing down embassies and consulates? Does that mean there is a specific threat against them?
EPPS: Well, it's certainly plausible that there could be something that could have been alleged toward one of the embassies. Normally when you think about the anti-American -- if you had an anti-American fervor taking over in the region, which in the Middle East is very powerful right now, the easiest targets to attack, potentially, are embassies and things like that. So if you were going to expect an attack to take place, typically it would be, for offAmerican soil, you would assume it would be a consulate or embassy.
CAVANAUGH: Officials are concerned about increased chatter among Al-Qaeda operatives in the Arabian peninsula. How do we take that and translate that into a worldwide travel advisory? Why such a broad advisory from the State Department do you think?
EPPS: Well, I think a couple reasons. I go back to the Benghazi case. I think we're being extra cautionary. This is more centrally located to the Middle East, North Africa, the Maghreb region, central Africa and also central Asia. These are the areas where primarily you see potential for influences from Al-Qaeda in those region, and Al-Qaeda bears more fruit in poorer countries than those that tend to have more wealth to them.
CAVANAUGH: The fact that is is worldwide, does that say what the State Department might be thinking is that operatives from that area may travel to other areas and perhaps try to cause some havoc there?
EPPS: Well, that's always a concern. But there's also, we forget that Al-Qaedaa exists in a lot of other countries already. They're in Latin America, lots of other regions of the world. So for those who just think they reside in the deserts of Arabia, are that's a foolish notion. There are tons of affiliates and operatives worldwide. So it's just a matter of how -- you don't necessarily have to travel anywhere. Can you engage your audience in another way, engage your adverary in another way by having indigenous people who are credible threats.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think there's any connection between these threats and the anniversary of the embassy bombing? Do you think that added to the precaution?
EPPS: I would say there's probably some logic path that gets them to be able to take that action. Historically, it's like 911 last year, with the Benghazi case. You can make an argument that there's a better safe than sorry attitude between the government and the infrastructure. However I also think, if you were a terrorist, would you really open up and say hey! By the way, we're going to come get you on Tuesday the 7th? Or would you wait till Wednesday the 8th? While you have to take it seriously, and you have to respond like it's going to happen immediately, I think they're doing what they need to do. They're probably reacting more than what they would have if this had been prior to Benghazi because they just want to make sure they get it right. And I think that's a really important aspect for them right now. And the government is doing everything it can to do that.
CAVANAUGH: Now, professor, you have a wealth of information about this region of the world, and you've been studying up on this travel advisory and the conditions of Al-Qaeda. I wonder, if you had a visit scheduled for northern Africa or the Middle East this month, would you postpone?
EPPS: No, I wouldn't actually. I was in Israel last year. It's interesting. Parts of Israel sort of live in a bubble. And I have some friends in the Israeli government there, we talk about certain areas within the region, and some cities are very insulated in some ways. Even though they still live with the reality of their adversaries. They operate in a comfortable normalcy. You see people with automatic weapons in Jerusalem, but I didn't feel threatened, I didn't feel like I couldn't go do what I needed to do. As you get toward the borders, things change a little bit. But in the inner part of the country, it's very different, and I think that's the case in a lot of these countries that most of these countries, if you were there, you'd find very little response. Maybe because they live with this every day, you get used to the reality of concerns that come your way. It wouldn't keep me from going to the region though.
CAVANAUGH: But certainly Yemen?
EPPS: I would not be hanging out in Yemen right now. Unless I were seal team 6 or something.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. Professor, thank you so much.
EPPS: Thank you.