At least 19 U.S. embassies and consulates in predominantly Muslim countries will remain closed through the week as the State Department stays on guard for potential terrorist attacks.
Yesterday’s initial one-day closing of 22 U.S. outposts followed the State Department’s issuance of a worldwide travel alert warning of planned attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia by al-Qaeda or its affiliates. The decision to extend the selective shutdown through Aug. 10 “is not an indication of a new threat stream,” Jen Psaki, a department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to extend the closure of several embassies and consulates including a small number of additional posts,” she said. This is “merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution.”
President Barack 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 White House press release. The terrorist threat that prompted the closure is “very credible” and “specific as to how enormous it was going to be,” lawmakers from both parties said.
Britain’s embassy in Yemen, which was also closed yesterday because of heightened security concerns, will remain shut until the end of the Muslim Eid holiday this week, the Foreign Office said on its website. The mission is operating with only essential staff. The U.K. has urged all Britons to leave Yemen.
France will keep its embassy in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, closed though Aug. 7, the Foreign Ministry in Paris said. The German mission there remains shut as well, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told a news conference in Berlin, though he said there’s no evidence of specific terror threats.
“High-level people from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack,” U.S. Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” program that aired yesterday. “The good news is that we’ve picked up intelligence.”
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, only saying the content is credible and disturbing.
“This threat was so specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also certain dates were given,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who serves on both the House Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, said on “This Week.” While an attempted attack is most likely to happen in the Middle East, “It could be in Europe, it could be in the United States.”
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 King and the two U.S. officials.
“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 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There’s been an awful lot of chatter out there” among terrorists, Chambliss said, noting it’s “reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”
Twenty-two embassies and other diplomatic posts were closed yesterday, including in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. Some of them were removed from the list of closures for the week, while others were added.
“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 last week. The attacks “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations is unusual this time partly because the groups are so “widely dispersed,” said Michael Chertoff, who was homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush.
“It’s actually quite rare to have this broad and yet so alarming and specific a warning be publicly disseminated,” Chertoff, who founded a security consulting company in Washington, told “This Week.”
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 latest alert and embassy closures may be an effort to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, according to Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director 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 yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.”
The scale of the attacks discussed in the intercepted al-Qaeda communications, coupled with the fact that the messages violated the terrorist group’s known rules about avoiding mobile and satellite phones and online conversations in favor of couriers, made some intelligence officials suspicious about the group’s intent, the two U.S. officials said.
The attacks the terrorists discussed were too ambitious in size and scope to ignore, both officials said, and that may have been deliberate. It’s also possible the discussions were intended to put al-Qaeda back in the headlines after years of foiled plots. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.
At the same time, said both officials, it’s not time to exhale because the list of targets and the timing in the intercepted communications may have been deliberately misleading, or the planners may have gone back to the drawing board after they learned that their plans had been discovered.
The U.S. warning came days after al-Qaeda’s 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.