WASHINGTON –The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert Friday warning citizens of potential terror attacks in the Middle East and North Africa by al-Qaida and its affiliates.
“Current information suggests that al-Qaida 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. The attacks are seen as occurring in or emanating from the Arabian peninsula, according to the statement, and “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The department also listed Friday 21 U.S. embassies and consulates that will be closed this weekend as a precaution. Those being shut are in the Mideast, North Africa and South Asia, including in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to a list posted on the department’s website.
“The Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday,” department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.
The British Foreign Office said Friday on its Twitter feed that its embassy in Yemen will be closed Aug. 4-5, with some staff being temporarily withdrawn. It said embassies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Bahrain will be open Aug. 4, though staff are advised to be extra-vigilant.
Delta Air Lines, US Airways and American Airlines are monitoring the travel situation and haven’t issued waivers letting passengers rebook flights without paying fees, spokesmen said. United Airlines declined to comment.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, said information coming in to security officials warranted a broad warning to citizens.
“We got intelligence, and not just the normal chitchat, that there could be an attack on Americans or our allies,” Ruppersberger told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. “Putting it out there, that also gives notice to the people that are planning it: We know something’s out there.”
There’s always a chance that the information on the planned attacks is intentionally misleading in an attempt to divert attention and security from the location, timing or nature of an actual plot, said an official in a U.S. agency who called the intelligence credible but not ironclad and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
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 repeatedly warned the State Department 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.
Harf also pointed reporters to a “Worldwide Caution” the department issued in February of this year warning Americans that “current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions.”
That caution said that security threat levels remain high in Yemen and that Iraq is “dangerous and unpredictable.” It also said al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active in Algeria, has attacked Westerners near the borders with Mali and Libya, and has claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing of Westerners throughout the region.
Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday on CNN that it’s his understanding that the latest threat “emanates in the Middle East and in Central Asia.”
Also, newly discovered 2011 papers suggest that the terrorist group considered taking hostages in an effort to stop strikes by unmanned U.S. aircraft.