The U.S. closed 21 embassies and consulates from Egypt and Libya to Yemen and Afghanistan today after issuing a worldwide travel warning of potential terror attacks by groups linked to al-Qaeda.
“The Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday,” as a precautionary step, a department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said last week. Embassies are open on Sunday in some predominantly Muslim countries, where it’s part of the workweek.
While U.S. officials didn’t disclose specific risks to embassies and other facilities this weekend, the travel advisory issued Aug. 2 described potential terrorist attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia for the rest of this month, possibly emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.
“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 “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The information includes communications among known terrorists intercepted by the National Security Agency in recent days, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing classified intelligence matters. They declined to offer specifics about the exchanges, although they called the content of them credible and disturbing.
“This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the chamber’s Intelligence Committee, said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There’s been an awful lot of chatter out there” among terrorists planning attacks, Chambliss said, noting that this was “reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”
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 U.S. Representative Peter King and the two American officials.
The possible Yemen connection was underscored as the U.K., Germany and France announced temporary closings of their embassies in that country.
“We’ve been informed directly and indirectly of threats” on French buildings and people abroad, French President Francois Hollande said yesterday in a video on the website of the Elysee Palace.
Canada’s embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is closed today as well, the Canadian Press reported, citing a spokesman for the Foreign Minister.
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 Aug. 2 on CNN. “There is a plot, the attacks are planned, but it’s not certain as to where.”
It’s possible that the terrorists’ discussions of planned attacks may be intentionally misleading in an attempt to divert attention and security from the location, timing or nature of an actual plot, cautioned one of the officials, who called the intelligence credible but not ironclad.
Amid worldwide debate over U.S. surveillance techniques, the intercepted messages also could be an effort to test what communications the NSA is monitoring, or whether certain computers, mobile phones or individuals have been compromised, according to the U.S. officials.
The warning surfaced as President Barack Obama’s administration argues that the agency’s surveillance programs are essential to fight terrorist threats. Top-secret documents disclosed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed the collection of data is more extensive than previously known.
Obama instructed his national security team last week to “take all appropriate steps to protect the American people in light of a potential threat occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula,” according to a press release issued by the White House press secretary’s office yesterday. “The president has received frequent briefings over the last week on all aspects of the potential threat and our preparedness measures.”
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 warned the State Department repeatedly of terrorist threats in Benghazi before the attack, according to e-mails released later by the White House.
The State Department had issued a similar warning of possible attacks before that.
The alert and embassy closures may be an effort to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, according to Michael Hayden, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency under the George W. Bush administration.
The announcements may be designed to put al-Qaeda “on the back foot, to let them know that we’re alert and we’re on to at least a portion of this plot line,” Hayden said today on “Fox News Sunday.”
The latest U.S. 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 terrorist groups.
Interpol said in a statement yesterday that 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.
Interpol said in the release that August is the anniversary of terrorist attacks in Mumbai; Gluboky, Russia; and Jakarta, Indonesia, and that this week is the 15th anniversary of U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
The significance of today as a day to close embassies wasn’t spelled out by the State Department, leaving room for speculation about possibilities. Today 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.