The U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert 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 yesterday. The U.S. will close 21 embassies and consulates in those regions this weekend as a precaution.
The information includes communications among known terrorists intercepted by the National Security Agency in the past 10 days, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing classified intelligence matters. They declined to offer specifics on the exchanges, although they called the content credible and disturbing.
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 the two U.S. officials.
King, a New York Republican, yesterday 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 on CNN. “There is a plot, the attacks are planned, but it’s not certain as to where.”
Before departing today for a round of golf with friends at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, President Barack Obama was updated on the terror threat by Lisa Monaco, White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, according to the White House.
Interpol said in a statement today it suspects al-Qaeda of involvement in prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan that have freed hundreds of terrorists and other criminals. The international police force is asking its 190 member countries to determine if the events are linked or coordinated, and to closely follow and process information linked to the escapes or escaped prisoners.
Interpol notes in the release that August is the anniversary of terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Gluboky, Russia and Jakarta, Indonesia, and that this week marks the 15th anniversary of U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Attacks are seen potentially occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula, according to the State Department warning, and “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The U.S. embassies and consulates scheduled to be closed this weekend 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,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said Aug. 1.
The U.K. Foreign Office said yesterday on its Twitter Inc. feed that its embassy in Yemen will be closed Aug. 4 and Aug. 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 tomorrow, though employees are advised to be extra-vigilant.
Germany joined the U.K. in closing its embassy in the Yemen capital of Sanaa on Aug. 4 and Aug. 5 for security reasons, a spokesman for the Federal Foreign Office said by telephone from Berlin.
The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan will open on Aug. 5 as scheduled, Meghan Gregonis, an embassy spokeswoman, said.
“Pakistan is a high-threat post so we are constantly at a high level of alert,” Gregonis said by phone today. “We continue to be on a high level of alert and we anticipate to re-open on Monday.”
The embassy in Jakarta said it will be closed as normal tomorrow and isn’t taking extra security precautions. No warnings were posted on its website today.
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 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.
Intelligence officials and lawmakers didn’t specify whether information about the threats came to light through an informer or through electronic surveillance. The warning surfaced as Obama’s administration argues that National Security Agency surveillance programs are essential to fight terrorist threats. Top-secret documents disclosed by former contractor Edward Snowden showed the surveillance is much more extensive than previously known.
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 drone strikes, according to the papers, which the New York-based news service translated from Arabic. The document is focused on Yemen.
The State Department warning came days after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri urged his followers in a speech posted on jihadist websites to attack U.S. sites as a response to American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terror groups.
U.S. pilotless 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 former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by American forces in Pakistan in 2011. The area is controlled by AQAP, and the strikes killed at least five suspected terrorists, said one U.S. official.
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. Obama met at the White House this week with Yemen’s President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, and both praised their nations’ cooperation in fighting terrorism.
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.
The significance of Aug. 4 as a day to close embassies wasn’t spelled out by the State Department, leaving room for speculation about possibilities. Tomorrow is Obama’s birthday, and it’s also a holy day on the Muslim calendar because it falls in the final 10 days of Ramadan, the month of fasting.
This evening may be considered the holiest because this year it’s Laylat al Qadr, or the Night of Power, when Muslims believe their holy book the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed.
While Muslims observe the evening with prayer, good works, and spiritual retreats, an extreme fringe could interpret it differently, said Mohammed Mattar, a senior research professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“Maybe they would be interpreting an act of terror as an act of Jihad,” or Holy War, Mattar said in a telephone interview.