The US has extended the closure of some of its embassies across the Middle East and Africa through the end of this week, amid fears of an imminent attack by Al Qaeda against Western targets within the region.
CNN reports that 15 of the 22 embassies and consulates that the US closed on Sunday, a normal work day in the region, would remain closed through the week until Saturday, according to a statement from the US State Department. Four additional diplomatic sites, all in Africa, would also be closed, the statement said. The threat is believed to be meant to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which wraps up with the celebration of Eid on Wednesday night.
"This is not an indication of a new threat stream, merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees including local employees and visitors to our facilities," the State Department said.
The US has also issued a travel alert regarding the possibility of an Al Qaeda-related attack. The alert runs until the end of August.
Though the specifics of the threat are not known, CNN reports that the epicenter of the alert appears to be in Yemen, according to an unnamed senior US security official. CNN says that three sources said that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, is in the final stages of planning for an attack. CNN adds the embassy closures were prompted by a particular message sent between senior Al Qaeda officials and intercepted by the US.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia, the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday that the communications "chatter" among the Islamic militant community is "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11."
"The one thing we can talk about is the fact that there's been an awful lot of chatter out there," Mr. Chambliss said. "This is the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years."
ABC reports that another unnamed official says that although the target is unclear – “We do not know whether they mean an embassy, an airbase, an aircraft, trains,” the official said – the planners claim the attack is “going to be big” and “strategically significant.”
“The part that is alarming is the confidence they showed while communicating and the air of certainty,” the official said, adding that the group — Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — appeared to have a media plan for after the attack. ...
Today on “This Week,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-MD — the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee — said the intercepted communications called for a “major attack.”
“We received information that high level people from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack,” Ruppersberger said. “And these are people at a high level.”
The official added that of particular concern is the possibility that attackers may have had "devices" surgically implanted to avoid detection. “These are guys who have developed the techniques to defeat our detection methods,” the official said.
Reuters notes that Britain is keeping its embassy in Yemen closed until Thursday. It had originally been scheduled to reopen tomorrow.
But despite the seriousness of the threat, the apparent targeting of US interests abroad – rather than in the US proper – suggests that Al Qaeda's "aspirations have contracted since 9/11," reports The Christian Science Monitor.
While Al Qaeda has by some measures become larger since 9/11, it has become less cohesive, according to a recent study by the RAND Corp., a defense and security consultancy. This means that the goals and capabilities of the various branches have shifted from attacking the American homeland to achieving narrower goals.
"They want to establish Islamic emirates in specific countries or regions, though they may be agnostic about a broader violent jihad," RAND terrorism expert Seth Jones said in congressional testimony last month.
The closures, which State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters were taken "out of an abundance of caution," also indicate a change in US response to threats, the Monitor adds.
"I think this, closing all of these embassies in the Middle East to North Africa, is in fact unprecedented. At least, I didn't see this during my career," Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to Iraq, told CNN.