The Obama administration's decision to close more than two dozen U.S. diplomatic facilities initially struck me, like many, as equal parts security precaution and security theater; a reaction to both a legitimate terrorism threat, apparently originating from al-Qaeda's Yemen-based branch, and to the political uproar in 2012 over a successful attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
Putting the embassy and consulate closures down on a map, though, seems to elucidate some interesting trends, some which can be difficult to immediately explain. It helps to shed a light on the apparent U.S. thinking, but raises some questions as well.
To chart the closures, I've used a map that also shows the concentration of Muslim citizens in each country, based on 2010 Pew data. This allows us to immediately see the degree to which the closures do and do not span the "Muslim world," as they've been commonly described this week. Red pins indicate the 19 still-closed diplomatic outposts, which will remain shuttered through Saturday. Yellow pins indicate the nine embassies or consulates that were closed over the weekend but reopened on Monday.
Here are a few points about what this visualization shows us, what it doesn't and the questions it raises.
1. Strikingly wide distribution of closures beyond Arab and Muslim spheres
Though most of the closures are in Arab- and Muslim-majority countries, not all of them are. See the red icons over Rwanda, Burundi, Madagascar and the island nation of Mauritius; more on this below.
And far from all diplomatic buildings in Muslim- or even Arab-majority countries are closed. Despite a couple of closures in North Africa -- the part of the region where the 2012 Benghazi attacks occurred -- the region is actually one of the least affected. Both outposts in Morocco are open, as are the embassies in Tunisia and Lebanon. In Egypt, though the fortress-like embassy in Cairo remains closed, the consulate building in Alexandria remains open.
U.S. diplomatic buildings in Pakistan remain open, despite ongoing Islamist terrorism there. Big swaths of the Muslim world, from West Africa to South Asia to Southeast Asia, are unaffected.
2. The entire Persian Gulf region appears locked down
Of the 19 closures, seven are along the Persian Gulf coast, plus two more in the Gulf nation of Saudi Arabia. Partly this is a function of the fact that the United States has a lot of embassies and consulates in this part of the world. But it's still striking that the United States has closed every single outpost in this Middle East sub-region, something it didn't do in North Africa or the Levant, though these might seem like more vulnerable areas.
Even normally quite safe cities such as Kuwait City, Dubai and Doha have had their U.S. diplomatic outposts shuttered, while Alexandria and Karachi remain open.
This would seem to raise the possibility that the United States believes a possible attack would be targeted specifically in this region. That makes some sense given that the threat reportedly originates from al-Qaeda's Yemen-based franchise, just on the other end of the Arabian Peninsula. It also makes sense given that, as the American Enterprise Institute's Katherine Zimmerman points out, this week marks the 23rd anniversary of Operation Desert Shield, a major point of grievance for al-Qaeda as it deepened Saudi military reliance on the United States and led to Osama bin Laden's exile from his home country.
Still, the apparent focus on the Gulf region also makes the wide geographic sweep of the other closures -- some of them way, way outside areas thought to be within al-Qaeda's reach -- that much more puzzling.
3. Almost no closures in East Africa
The al-Qaeda affiliated group al-Shabab, which is based in Somalia, has sometimes launched attacks in nearby countries, some of which are cooperating with the United States against the Somali group. And, as Zimmerman notes, this week is also the 15th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. And yet, the embassies in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are all open.
This could make a great deal of sense if the United States believes that the threat is specific to Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region. But, if the United States would not close its diplomatic buildings in East Africa, that would seem to undermine the prevailing theory that the State Department is shuttering any and all outposts in countries with possible al-Qaeda-linked threats and suggests a more specific strategy. And that in turn makes the Central Africa closings more difficult to grasp.
4. Reopenings add to mystery
That the United States would move to reopen the diplomatic buildings in Afghanistan and Iraq is not so surprising. Despite the ongoing threats there, the buildings are fortresses, and U.S. intelligence has deep roots in both countries, making it easier for the United States to both spot incoming attacks and endure them if they go through.
But what was striking to me were the other three closures, in the capitals of Algeria, Mauritania and Bangladesh. That's not to say that it's a surprise to see them reopened; if anything, they seemed like outliers on the initial list, and it's not hard to imagine that the United States saw lesser threats in those countries. What's eyebrow-raising about this is that the United States would reopen in Algeria and Bangladesh but not in countries that seem even less likely targets, namely those in sub-Saharan Africa.
5. The African puzzle
Of the five closings in sub-Saharan Africa, only that in Djibouti -- a small country that hosts a U.S. drone base and is just across the Mandab Strait from Yemen -- seems immediately obvious.
But what about the other four? I was most surprised by the closures in Rwanda and Burundi, two small, Central African countries with small Muslim minorities and little experience with Islamist extremism or terrorism. I asked Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College who studies and often travels in the region, if perhaps these embassies were just unguarded or had unusually weak security, which might help explain an abundance of caution.
"That's what I've been thinking, too," Seay wrote back in an e-mail. "Problem is, [the U.S. Embassy in the Rwandan capital of] Kigali is already in its new fortress." The U.S. diplomatic staff there had recently moved out of an older, more vulnerable facility, she explained, and into a new, high-security building.
The United States also opened a new, state-of-the-art embassy in Burundi as well, a building that would almost certainly be high-security.
Seay noted that the facility in Nairobi is a high-security fortress, which may make keeping it open easier. But, like me, she was at a loss to explain why the United States would shutter embassies in Rwanda and Burundi but not in Uganda, the capital of which has been targeted by al-Shabab in the past. "Kampala would be a lot easier, at least at the perimeter," she wrote." Doesn't make sense to me either, except that [Ugandan leader Yoweri] Museveni's intel services are very good & there's a growing AFRICOM/DATT presence that I'm sure has serious intel capabilities."
As for Madagascar and the tiny Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius, I was simply unable to find any explanations or even speculation as to why they might be at risk from a Yemen-based terrorist group.