The U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert today warning citizens of potential terror attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia by al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
“Current information suggests that al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August,” the department said. The attacks are seen as occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula, according to the statement, and “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The primary focus is on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen and a remote part of Saudi Arabia, according to Representative Peter King and two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing classified intelligence matters.
King, a New York Republican, called the threat intelligence “the most specific I’ve seen” since the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It is coming out of Yemen, and it is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” King said today on CNN. “There is a plot, the attacks are planned, but it’s not certain as to where.”
The U.K. Foreign Office said today on its Twitter Inc. feed that its embassy in Yemen will be closed Aug. 4-5, with some staff being temporarily withdrawn. It said embassies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Bahrain will be open Aug. 4, though staff are advised to be extra-vigilant.
The State Department today listed 21 U.S. embassies and consulates that will be closed this weekend as a precaution. Those being shut are in the Mideast, North Africa and South Asia, including in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to a list posted on the department’s website.
“The Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday,” department spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday.
The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, said the information coming in to security officials warranted a broad warning to citizens.
“We got intelligence, and not just the normal chitchat, that there could be an attack on Americans or our allies,” Ruppersberger told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. “Putting it out there, that also gives notice to the people that are planning it: We know something’s out there.”
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “there is a significant threat stream, and we’re reacting to it.” In excerpts released from an interview to air on ABC’s “This Week” program this weekend, Dempsey said the threat is “more specific” than previous ones.
“The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S., interests,” he said.
U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, yesterday declined to comment on whether any troops have been moved or placed on higher alert in response to the latest terrorist threat warning.
“As a matter of policy, we do not discuss specific force protection measures or changes,” said Major Ian Phillips, a spokesman at command headquarters in Tampa, Florida.
Delta Air Lines Inc., US Airways Group Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines are monitoring the travel situation and haven’t issued waivers letting passengers rebook flights without paying fees, spokesmen said. United Airlines, a unit of United Continental Holdings Inc., declined to comment.
It’s always possible that the intelligence on the planned attacks is intentionally misleading in an attempt to divert attention and security from the location, timing or nature of an actual plot, cautioned one of the U.S. officials, who called the intelligence credible but not ironclad.
Newly discovered 2011 papers suggest that for several years the Yemeni terrorist group has been considering taking hostages in an effort to stop attacks on it by unmanned U.S. aircraft.
Documents purportedly from al-Qaeda fighters in Mali and obtained by the Associated Press outline a strategy of kidnapping “in exchange for the drone strategy.”
Kidnappings would “bring back the pressure of the American public opinion in a more active way” against drones, according to the papers, which the New York-based news service translated from Arabic. The document is focused on Yemen.
U.S. unmanned aircraft have carried out three attacks in the last five days in the remote area that spans eastern Yemen and Saudi Arabia and is the homeland of Osama bin Laden. The area is controlled by AQAP, and the strikes have killed at least five suspected terrorists, said one of the officials.
In all, the U.S. has conducted almost 50 such strikes in Yemen since the beginning of 2012, killing some of the group’s leaders, including its deputy emir, Said al-Shihri, whose death the group acknowledged in a video last month. The American-born cleric and propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
Both U.S. officials said the strikes have been carried out with the tacit approval of the Yemeni government, which AQAP wants to overthrow.
The announcement that embassies will be closed this weekend also came after terrorist groups freed hundreds of prisoners in several countries.
On July 22, more than 500 prisoners, including senior al-Qaeda figures, escaped from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. On July 27, more than 1,000 detainees escaped from detention in Benghazi. A July 30 Taliban attack on a prison facility in northwest Pakistan freed more than 250 prisoners.
Harf also pointed reporters to a “Worldwide Caution” the department issued in February of this year warning Americans that “current information suggests that al-Qaeda, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions.”
That caution said that security threat levels remain high in Yemen and that Iraq is “dangerous and unpredictable.” It also said al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is active in Algeria, has attacked Westerners near the borders with Mali and Libya, and has claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing of Westerners throughout the region.
The State Department pledged to increase security at embassies and consulates after the attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Central Intelligence Agency said it had repeatedly warned the State Department of terrorist threats in Benghazi before the attack, according to e-mails released later by the White House.