US closes embassies, issues global travel alert over Al Qaeda threat

The State Department ordered a precautionary closing on Sunday of 21 US embassies and consulates, mainly in the Middle East, without citing a specific threat. But its global travel alert says Al Qaeda may attack 'between now and the end of August.'

Nir Elias/Reuters/File
An exterior view of the deadly firebombing of an unprepared US consulate, in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 12, 2012. With the anniversary of the attack approaching, US embassies and consulates, mainly in the Middle East, that would normally be open this Sunday will be closed, the US State Department said Thursday.

What's in the “chatter” of global Internet traffic and telecommunications that prompted the precautionary closing this Sunday of US embassies and consulates in a number of Middle Eastern and Muslim countries?

The State Department isn’t saying anything about specific threats. But a global travel alert the State Department issued Friday makes the origin of the threat clear: “Current information suggests that Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond,” the alert states. Al Qaeda and its affiliates “may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August,” it adds.

Sources with access to intelligence, including certain members of Congress, say the threat was picked up in more than the usual amount of communications, or “chatter,” about possible attacks against US interests overseas.

And, especially, with the anniversary of the deadly firebombing of an unprepared US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, approaching, it’s clear the potential danger is enough to prompt extraordinary measures.

The State Department on Friday issued a list of 21 embassies and consulates, mostly in the Middle East, that are instructed to close Sunday. On Thursday, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the order affects “all US embassies and consulates that would have normally been open on Sunday.” The weekend in Muslim countries is typically Friday and Saturday, with Sunday beginning the work week.

Among the countries where US diplomatic missions will close are Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Facilities in some countries may remain closed past Sunday, Ms. Harf said.

Friday’s travel alert does not single out any particular countries where Americans should avoid travel, but it does refer to a “continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.”

The embassy and consulate closings affecting such a wide swath of countries were clearly extraordinary, and had “Benghazi” written all over them, some foreign policy analysts say.

“After Benghazi, the thinking is ‘better to be safe than sorry,’ ” says Lawrence Korb, a national security analyst at Washington’s Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of Defense. “Clearly that experience is going to color the way they do things for quite a while.”

The State Department has faced withering criticism from Republicans in Congress for what they maintain was high-level disregard for threats and internal warnings of inadequate security concerning the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi in eastern Libya. A terrorist attack on the facility on Sept. 11, 2012, left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

The amount of threat traffic, or “chatter,” must have been higher than usual, Dr. Korb says. That, together with Benghazi, led to measures reflecting what the State Department characterized as “an abundance of caution.”

“You put it all together, and that leads you to [make a call like this]," Korb says. “You do it, and if nothing happens, then you go back to work and everybody just got an extra day off,” he says. In the State Department, “they’re also thinking better that than being up there [at the Capitol] before Darryl Issa again,” adds Korb, referring to the California Republican who chairs the House Oversight Committee, which held emotional and combative Benghazi hearings that zeroed in on State Department shortcomings.

Another House Republican, Rep. Ed Royce of California, told CNN Friday that, from what he was told, the threat is “Al Qaeda-linked" and “emanates in the Middle East and Central Asia.” Representative Royce is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Korb notes that “Al Qaeda central,” meaning what remains of the terrorist organization’s central leadership in Pakistan, “is pretty well decimated.” But he adds that, “given everything that’s going on,” the numerous Al Qaeda-affiliated groups scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, “may have decided that this was a good time to do something.”

Aside from Libya, Mali, and Yemen, Al Qaeda-linked groups are also operating in Syria, where Islamist extremists fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad are increasingly at odds with the more moderate anti-Assad rebels the US supports.

Al Qaeda and its affiliates received a round of publicity from a string of anti-US demonstrations stretching from Egypt to Pakistan last August, and the organization may be thinking it’s time to go for a new boost, Korb says. “All of this may be about them wanting to show that they are still relevant.”     

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