The State Department warned U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Pakistan and pulled most American diplomats from its consulate in Lahore because of security threats posed by extremist groups in the region.
Non-emergency personnel were ordered withdrawn from the post in Lahore because of “specific threats concerning the U.S. consulate,” the State Department said yesterday in its warning. The department is taking appropriate steps to protect employees, according to a senior agency official who asked not to be identified discussing the moves.
“The presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan,” the department said. The travel warning marks an escalation from an earlier notice to U.S. citizens about security concerns in the South-Asian country.
The consulate drawdown and heightened travel alert for Pakistan are the latest U.S. actions in response to concerns that al-Qaeda or affiliated groups are planning an attack on American interests.
Last week, President Barack Obama’s administration decided to temporarily close almost two-dozen U.S. embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia. The Lahore consulate wasn’t on the earlier list of diplomatic posts to be closed.
The closings were prompted by the intercept of communications between Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda chief in Pakistan, and the head of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. Earlier this week, the U.S. flew government personnel out of Yemen and urged other Americans to leave that country.
Pakistan government offices were closed today for Eid al-Fitr celebrations. In a holiday message yesterday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urged Pakistanis to “unite on a national agenda against terrorism and extremism,” according to Associated Press of Pakistan.
An attack today in the southwest city of Quetta, 440 miles (710 kilometers) from Lahore, killed six people and wounded 15, the Associated Press reported, citing police officer Bashir Ahmad Barohi. The gunmen were targeting a former provincial minister, Ali Madad Jatak, who escaped unharmed, AP said.
Relations with Pakistan have been delicate since 2011, when a U.S. raid killed bin Laden, who was living in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and two dozen Pakistanis were killed accidentally in a U.S. airstrike. Pakistan shut resupply routes for American forces in Afghanistan for more than six months.
A particular source of tension is the U.S. use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, which Pakistanis consider a violation of their sovereignty. During a visit to Pakistan last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a television interview that he saw the possibility of ending the covert counterterrorism program “ very, very soon.”
Obama, during an Aug. 6 interview on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” defended the embassy and consulate closings as a necessary precaution.
“Whenever we see a threat stream that we think is specific enough that we can take some specific precautions within a certain time frame, then we do so,” the president said. “This radical violent extremism is still out there and we have to stay on top of it.”