The terrorist threat that prompted the closure of 22 U.S. embassies and consulates in predominantly Muslim countries is “very credible” and “specific as to how enormous it was going to be,” lawmakers from both parties said.
“High-level people from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack,” U.S. Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “The good news is that we’ve picked up intelligence.”
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The information includes communications among known terrorists intercepted by the National Security Agency in recent days, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing classified intelligence matters. They declined to offer specifics about the exchanges, only saying the content is credible and disturbing.
While an attempted attack is most likely to happen in the Middle East, “It could be in Europe, it could be in the United States,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who serves on both the House Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, said on “This Week.” “It could be a series of combined attacks.”
“This threat was so specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also certain dates were given,” King said.
The U.S. State Department last week issued a worldwide travel alert warning citizens of potential terror attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia by al-Qaeda or its affiliates. The primary focus is on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen and a remote part of Saudi Arabia, according to King and the two American officials.
Late Sunday, the department extended the closures of some embassies and consulates in the Middle East through Aug. 10 due to caution but not the emergence of any new threat, the State Department said.
Other U.S. diplomatic posts, including in Kabul, Baghdad and Algiers, that had been closed on Sunday, will reopen on Monday, the State Department said.
Posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa, Tripoli, Antanarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis will be closed through Saturday.
U.S. diplomatic posts in Dhaka, Algiers, Nouakchott, Kabul, Herat, Mazar el Sharif, Baghdad, Basrah, and Erbil will open on Monday.
“This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years,” Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the chamber’s Intelligence Committee, said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There’s been an awful lot of chatter out there” among terrorists planning attacks, Chambliss said, noting that this was “reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”
The embassies and consulates closed this weekend as a precaution include those in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to a list posted on the department’s website.
“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,” the department said. The attacks “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The warning of a potential attack by al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations is unusual this time partly because the groups are so “widely dispersed,” said Michael Chertoff, who was Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush.
“It’s actually quite rare to have this broad and yet so alarming and specific a warning be publicly disseminated,” Chertoff, who founded a security consulting company in Washington, told ABC’s “This Week.”
President Barack Obama instructed his national security team last week to “take all appropriate steps to protect the American people in light of a potential threat occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula,” according to a press release issued by the White House yesterday. “The president has received frequent briefings over the last week on all aspects of the potential threat and our preparedness measures.”
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 warned the State Department repeatedly of terrorist threats in Benghazi before the attack, according to e-mails released later by the White House.
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The State Department had issued a similar warning of possible attacks before that.
The latest alert and embassy closures may be an effort to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, according to Michael Hayden, who served as CIA director under the George W. Bush administration.
The announcements may be designed to put al-Qaeda “on the back foot, to let them know that we’re alert and we’re on to at least a portion of this plot line,” Hayden said today on “Fox News Sunday.”
The U.S. warning came days after al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged his followers in a speech posted on jihadist websites to attack U.S. sites as a response to American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist groups.
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