WASHINGTON – The unprecedented closure of nearly two dozen US embassies and
consulates across the Middle East was extended through the week, the State
Department announced on Sunday.
The reason given for the closure was an
“abundance of caution” – not a new threat beyond what had already been revealed
as a credible and significant threat from senior-level al-Qaida officials in the
US officials began acknowledging more details of the
plot over the weekend. Increased chatter and confidence from senior members of
al-Qaida in Yemen led to the closure decision, they say, despite a lack of clear
evidence that the planned targets of the terrorist organization were embassies,
as opposed to commuter trains, tourist sites or airports.
administration calculated that the targets might be embassies after witnessing
the group’s enthusiasm in the wake of the Benghazi attack in 2012, which led to
the murder of US ambassador Chris Stevens.
The senior al-Qaida members
also spoke of the “strategic significance” of the attack, which implied to US
officials that they would aim for American assets.
But there is also only
so much the US can do, officials privately concede. Closing embassies is well
within the administration’s power, whereas other actions rely on strong
intelligence gathering and local police work.
Intelligence officials fear
al-Qaida’s newfound ability to sidestep US surveillance and security
procedures. The group has been experimenting with surgically implanting bombs
within the human body– a tactic that, if successful, would significantly
challenge existing procedures of security agencies and would redefine the modern
Officials are also interested in why such high-level
officials would knowingly break operational procedure, making phone calls they
knew would be picked up by intercepts.
President Barack Obama held a
series of hours-long Oval Office meetings with virtually every member of his
national security staff to address the matter, including the heads of the FBI,
CIA, and Homeland Security agencies; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
defense secretary, and secretary of state; his new ambassador to the United
Nations, Samantha Power; and multiple senior counterterrorism
Various congressmen briefed on the threat referred to the
possible attack as major.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, ranking member of the
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said on Sunday that the threat was “the
most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.”
in the region will remain closed through August 10.
“We continue to get
new information,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Monday,
adding that the US “wouldn’t want to venture a guess” on whether al-Qaida’s
plans have changed.
She noted that the decision to close 19 embassies was
“a deliberative, post-by-post process” and represents the broadest closure since
“Our priority remains overseas,” she added, when asked whether the
threat may target the homeland.
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