As U.S. lawmakers announced on Sunday morning talk shows that threats from al-Qaeda against American embassies were the most credible in years, 21 U.S. embassies and consulates in North Africa and the Middle East were closed.
Many of the embassies will remain closed until Saturday because the threats seemed to be aligned with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said the extended closures were “out of an abundance of caution” and not a reaction to a new threat.
“This is a wake-up call,” New York Congressman Peter King, who appears to be testing the presidential waters, said on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “Al-Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11, because it’s mutated and spread, and can come at us in different directions. And al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula is probably the most deadly of al-Qaeda affiliates.”
“The assumption is that it’s most likely to happen in the Middle East, at or about one of the embassies, but there’s no guarantee at all,” King added. “It could be Europe, the United States. It could be a series of combined attacks. It could be the same concept as the 2006 liquid-explosive planned attacks, when there were going to be a series of attacks carried out almost simultaneously. So we have to be ready for everything.”
Because the threats are coming from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has a track record of innovative bomb plots, Western governments are taking them seriously. Plots have included one by the elusive Saudi bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, who sent his brother to blow up a prince with a bomb concealed on, or possibly even inside, his body.
Though AQAP leaders have been a primary target of U.S. drone strikes, they have managed to remain largely beyond the reach of the authorities and continue to plot attacks by hiding out in remote mountains.
Despite the comments by King, the threats seemed to be particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa.
The U.K. Foreign Office had earlier announced it would shut its mission in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, until Tuesday, but U.S. diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad are among those that will reopen today.
However, diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday.
African missions in Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali and Port Louis also will remain closed this week.
The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, normally closed to the public on Sunday, announced all its facilities would be shut on Sunday and asked “workers not essential for the building’s security” not to report for duty. In addition, the two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa were also closed on Sunday.
“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,” said a statement from the State Department.
A travel alert advises U.S. citizens to be vigilant, warning of “the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”