Target not necessarily embassies as US extends worldwide alert

Officials: Increased chatter from top al-Qaida men led to alert; embassies in the region will remain closed through August 10.

US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in flames 370 (photo credit: reuters)
US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya in flames 370
(photo credit: reuters)
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 Arabian Peninsula.
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.
The 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 suicide bomber.
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 officials.
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.”
Embassies 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 1998.
“Our priority remains overseas,” she added, when asked whether the threat may target the homeland.