The threat of a terrorist attack led to the weekend closure of 21 U.S. embassies and consulates in the Muslim world and a global travel warning to Americans, the first such alert since an announcement before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 strikes.
President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser updated him on the potential al-Qaeda threat before he left Saturday for a round of golf in Maryland to kick off his 52nd birthday celebration this weekend, officials said.
An attack last year on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
“There is a significant threat stream, and we’re reacting to it,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told ABC in an interview to be aired Sunday that the threat was “more specific” than previous ones and the “intent is to attack Western, not just U.S. interests.”
The warning said al-Qaeda or its allies might target either U.S. government or private American interests. The alert expires on Aug. 31.
The New York Times reported Friday night that American officials said the U.S. had intercepted electronic communications among senior operatives of al-Qaeda.
The State Department said the potential for terrorism was particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa, with a possible attack occurring on or coming from the Arabian Peninsula.
U.S. officials pointed specifically to Yemen, the home of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot and the network blamed for several notable terrorist plots on the United States.
“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,” a department statement said.
Britain, Germany and France also announced their embassies in Yemen would be closed Sunday and Monday. British authorities said some embassy staff in Yemen had been withdrawn “due to security concerns.”
Interpol, meanwhile, issued a global security alert Saturday in connection with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several recent prison escapes including those in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The alert calls on Interpol’s 190 member countries to help determine whether these events are coordinated or linked. The Lyon, France-based international police agency said it issues such alerts fairly regularly.
The State Department urged U.S. travelers to take extra precautions overseas, citing potential dangers involved with public transportation systems and other prime sites for tourists. It noted that previous terrorist attacks have centered on subway and rail networks as well as airplanes and boats.
The alert was posted a day after the U.S. announced it would shut many diplomatic facilities Sunday. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said some missions may stay closed for longer than a day.
Sunday is a business day in Muslim countries, and the diplomatic offices affected stretch from Mauritania in northwest Africa to Afghanistan.
Although the warning coincided with “Al-Quds Day,” the last Friday of the Islamic month of Ramadan when people in Iran and some Arab countries express their solidarity with the Palestinians and their opposition to Israel, U.S. officials played down any connection.
They said the threat wasn’t directed toward a specific U.S. diplomatic facility.
The concern by American officials over the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is not new, given the terror branch’s gains in territory and reach during Yemen’s prolonged Arab Spring-related instability.
The group made significant territorial gains last year, capturing towns and cities in the south amid a power struggle in the capital that ended with the resignation of Yemen’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. A U.S.-aided counteroffensive by the government has since pushed the militants back.
Yemen’s current president, Abdo Rabby Mansour Hadi, met with Obama at the White House on Thursday, where both leaders cited strong counterterrorism cooperation. Earlier this week, Yemen’s military reported a U.S. drone strike killed six alleged al-Qaeda militants in the group’s southern strongholds.
As recently as June, the group’s commander, Qasim al-Rimi, released an Arabic-language video urging attacks on U.S. targets and praising the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombings in April.
“The blinking red intelligence appears to be pointing toward an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plot,” said Seth Jones, counterterror expert at the Rand Corp.