Associated Press Release
WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. diplomatic posts in 19 cities in the Muslim world will be closed at least through the end of this week, the State Department said Sunday, citing "an abundance of caution."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the decision to keep the embassies and consulates closed is "not an indication of a new threat."
She said the continued closures are "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."
Diplomatic facilities will remain closed in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among other countries, through Saturday, Aug. 10. The State Department announcement Sunday added closures of four African sites, in Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda and Mauritius.
The U.S. has also decided to reopen some posts on Monday, including those in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad.
The Obama administration announced Friday that the posts would be closed over the weekend and the State Department announced a global travel alert, warning that al-Qaida or its allies might target either U.S. government or private American interests.
The weekend closure of nearly two dozen U.S. diplomatic posts resulted from the gravest terrorist threat seen in years, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss said "the chatter" intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies led the Obama administration to shutter the embassies and consulates and issue a global travel warning to Americans.
"Chatter means conversation among terrorists about the planning that's going on - very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11," Chambliss, R-Ga., told NBC's "Meet the Press."
"This is the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years," he said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told ABC's "This Week" that the threat intercepted from "high-level people in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" was about a "major attack."
Yemen is home to al-Qaida's most dangerous affiliate, blamed for several notable terrorist plots on the United States. They include the foiled Christmas Day 2009 effort to bomb an airliner over Detroit and the explosives-laden parcels intercepted the following year aboard cargo flights.
Rep. Peter King, who leads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said the threat included dates but not locations of possible attacks.
"The threat was specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also that certain dates were given," King, R-N.Y., said on ABC.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a House Intelligence Committee member, said the "breadth" of the closures suggests U.S. authorities are concerned about a potential repeat of last year's riots and attacks at multiple embassies, including the deadly assault in Benghazi, Libya, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
In addition, Interpol, the French-based international policy agency, has issued a global security alert in connection with suspected al-Qaida involvement in several recent prison escapes including those in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.
Those prison breaks add to the concerns about an attack, said Schiff, D-Calif., also noting the approaching end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
"So you have a lot things coming together. ... But all of that would not be enough without having some particularly specific information," he said.
The Obama administration's decision to close the embassies and the lawmakers' general discussion about the threats come at a sensitive time as the government tries to defend recently disclosed surveillance programs that have stirred deep privacy concerns and raised the potential of the first serious retrenchment in terrorism-fighting efforts since Sept. 11.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman has scoffed at the assertion by the head of the National Security Agency that government methods used to collect telephone and email data have helped foil 54 terror plots.
Schiff said he has seen no evidence linking the latest warnings to that agency's collection of "vast amounts of domestic data."
Other lawmakers defended the administration's response and promoted the work of the NSA in unearthing the intelligence that lead to the security warnings.
"The bottom line is ... that the NSA's job is to do foreign intelligence," Ruppersburger said. "The whole purpose is to collect information to protect us."
Added King, a frequent critic of President Barack Obama, "Whether or not there was any controversy over the NSA at all, all these actions would have been taken."
Friday's warning from the State Department urged American 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. It suggested travelers sign up for State Department alerts and register with U.S. consulates in the countries they visit. The alert expires Aug. 31.
The statement said al-Qaida or its allies might target either U.S. government or private American interests.
CBS Web Copy
The terror threat prompting the U.S. government to close nearly two dozen embassies and consulates Sunday is the most specific, credible threat information in years, CBS News senior correspondent John Miller reports.
Intelligence officers have reporting from a reliable source that a major plot is under way and that the team to carry it out has been selected and is in place, Miller reports.
The threat information has been described as the most specific and credible since the foiled plot to blow up British planes en route to the United States in 2006, Miller reports. The specificity ends there.
What authorities don't have is the date, the timing or the target of the attack, which is why they have taken such an approach to warning potential targets, Miller reports.
The threat has prompted the U.S. to issue a global travel alert to all Americans for the first time since the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
White House officials said President Obama was briefed Saturday morning on the potential terrorist threat before departing for Camp David, CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues reports.
Worldwide, 22 U.S. embassies and consulates are preparing to close their doors Sunday.
The State Department says there is a potential for a terrorist attack "particularly in the Middle East and North Africa."
Officials have specifically mentioned Yemen as a potential target. The country is home base for Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, a terrorist group that many now consider the most dangerous in the world.
Historically the month of August has been an active one for terrorist organizations.
Fifteen years ago this week, twin U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania claimed more than 200 lives and injured more than 4,000.
Next month also marks the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate said next week's Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr that marks end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, is often a period of increased violence.
"But I would say when al Qaeda is ready to attack, it tries to attack," said Zarate. "A challenge for authorities will be understanding what this plot is and if they're not able to divine or ferret out what's happening, at what point they lift the alert and open up the diplomatic doors again."
The travel alert issued for American citizens worldwide warns that both rail and airports could be targeted.
But at Dulles Airport near the nation's capital, the warning is not discouraging passenger Nathan Brandeburg.
"I'm not too afraid to travel, especially with security the way it is," he said. "I mean, we're traveling with a lot of gear as well, and we have to go through all the security, so I know what it's like. It doesn't really bother me too much."
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Associated Press Release
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States issued an extraordinary global travel warning to Americans Friday about the threat of an al-Qaida attack and closed down 21 embassies and consulates across the Muslim world for the weekend.
The alert was the first of its kind since an announcement preceding the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This one comes with the scars still fresh from last year's deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and with the Obama administration and Congress determined to prevent any similar breach of an American Embassy or consulate.
"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 News 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 State Department warning urged American travelers to take extra precautions overseas, citing potential dangers involved with public transportation systems and other prime sites for tourists and noting that previous terrorist attacks have centered on subway and rail networks as well as airplanes and boats. It suggested travelers sign up for State Department alerts and register with U.S. consulates in the countries they visit.
The statement said that al-Qaida or its allies might target either U.S. government or private American interests. The alert expires on Aug. 31.
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-Qaida's most dangerous offshoot and the network blamed for several notable terrorist plots on the United States, from the foiled Christmas Day 2009 effort to bomb an airliner over Detroit to the explosives-laden parcels intercepted the following year aboard cargo flights.
"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," a department statement said.
The alert was posted a day after the U.S. announced it would shut many diplomatic facilities Sunday. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the department acted out of an "abundance of caution" and that 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.
"I don't know if I can say there was a specific threat," said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the House Foreign Affairs Committee's top Democrat, who was briefed on the State Department's decision. "There is concern over the potentiality of violence."
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 American diplomatic facility.
The concern by American officials over the Yemen-based al-Qaida 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 U.S. President Barack 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-Qaida 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 Boston Marathon bombings. "Making these bombs has become in everyone's ... reach," he said, according to the English subtitles on the video, reposted by private U.S. intelligence firm the IntelCenter.
"The blinking red intelligence appears to be pointing toward an Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula plot," said Seth Jones, counterterror expert at the Rand Corp., referring to the branch of al-Qaida known as AQAP.
Britain also took action Friday in Yemen, announcing it would close its embassy there on Sunday and Monday as a precaution.
Britain, which closely coordinates on intelligence matters with Washington, stopped short of releasing a similar region-wide alert but added that some embassy staff in Yemen had been withdrawn "due to security concerns." British embassies and consulates elsewhere in the Middle East were to remain open.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said the embassy threat was linked to al-Qaida and concerned the Middle East and Central Asia.
"In this instance, we can take a step to better protect our personnel and, out of an abundance of caution, we should," Royce said. He declined to say if the National Security Agency's much-debated surveillance program helped reveal the threat.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, also supported the department's decision to go public with its concerns.
"The most important thing we have to do is protect American lives," he said, describing the threat as "not the regular chitchat" picked up from would-be militants on the Internet or elsewhere.
The State Department issued another warning a year ago about potential violence connected to the Sept. 11 anniversary. Dozens of American installations were besieged by protests over reports of an anti-Islam video made by an American resident, and in Benghazi, Libya, the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed when militants assaulted a diplomatic post.
The administration no longer says Benghazi was related to the demonstrations. But the attack continues to be a flashpoint of contention with Republicans in Congress who say Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in the government misled the country about the nature of the attack after failing to provide adequate diplomatic protection.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Sagar Meghani and Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
CBS News York
WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) – The United States has issued a global travel alert because of an al-Qaeda terrorist threat.
The State Department says the potential for terrorism is particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa. It says an attack could occur or come from the Arabian Peninsula.
The department said in a statement that al-Qaeda and its affiliated organizations “continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond.”
The travel alert comes a day after the U.S. announced that it would shutter its embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world on Sunday, and possibly longer.
Sunday is a workday in the Muslim world. American diplomatic missions in Europe, Latin America and many other places are closed on Sunday.
The State Department issued a major warning last year informing American diplomatic facilities across the Muslim world about potential violence connected to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.