Western embassies in Yemen and 19 U.S. diplomatic posts across the Arab world and Africa remained closed Monday following reports that al Qaeda might strike Western targets around the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this week.
Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands joined the United States in closing their embassies in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, over the weekend after U.S. intelligence intercepted communications among senior al Qaeda leaders about a plot to attack Western interests.
British officials told the BBC that their embassy “will remain closed until the end of Eid,” the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
“No exact date for [the embassy’s] reopening has been given, but Eid ends on Thursday,” the BBC reported.
The British Foreign Office is advising on its website against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging hundreds of its nationals working there to leave.
French officials, without providing any details, said their embassy in Sanaa would be closed for several days.
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“We have been directly and indirectly informed of threats concerning our overseas establishments and expatriates, threats from al Qaeda,” French President Francois Hollande said, according to Radio France International. “Therefore, the embassy will be closed for several days.”
Other news agencies reported that German and Dutch embassies in Sanna also would be closed.
The closures were prompted by intercepted communications among senior al Qaeda operatives, the end of Ramadan, and concerns about several major prison breaks in the region, according to CNN.
The State Department last week announced 22 embassies and consulates would be closed Sunday — a workday in the Islamic world when they normally would have been open for business.
Sunday afternoon, a department spokeswoman said embassy closures at 15 locations would be extended through Saturday, Aug. 10; and that four other posts — all in Africa — would be shuttered all week out of “an abundance of caution.”
The State Department list of extended closings issued Sunday includes embassies and consulates in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Libya, Djibouti and Sudan. In addition, embassies will be closed in Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda and Mauritius — not on the original list Friday.
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Embassies and consulates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iraq and Mauritania, which were closed at the weekend, reopened on Monday.
“This is not an indication of a new threat stream, 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,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Interpol said in a weekend alert that it suspected al Qaeda involvement in a series of recent jailbreaks in nine countries, including Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. It said the jailbreaks allowed the escape of hundreds of “terrorists and other criminals” in the past month.
The alert calls on police agencies in all 190 Interpol-member countries to try to find out whether the jailbreaks were coordinated or linked, Interpol said Saturday.
Lawmakers briefed on the intelligence said over the weekend the threat was the worst since Sept. 11, 2001.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the danger was “the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years.”
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, concurred and said the magnitude of the plot may be even more extensive.
“I have been given every assurance that we’re doing everything we can to prevent this threat from happening,” Mr. McCaul said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “And I must say this is probably one of the most specific and credible threats I’ve seen perhaps since 9/11. And that’s why everybody is taking this so seriously.”
He called the decision to close the embassies a “smart call.”
“The threat was specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also that certain dates were given,” Rep. Peter. T King, New York Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Mr. King said he believes al Qaeda “is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11 because it has mutated and it’s spread in dramatically different locations.” The terror network’s Yemeni branch, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, “is the most deadly of all the al Qaeda affiliates,” he said.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham cautioned against allowing the United States to be driven out of the Middle East as resurgent elements of the global al Qaeda network reconstitute themselves in the volatile region.
“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Nusra, all of them have one thing in common: They want to drive the West out of the Mideast and take over these Muslim countries and create an al Qaeda-type religious entity in the place of what exists today,” Mr. Graham, South Carolina Republican, saidSunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “So this is an effort to terrorize us, to drive us out of the Mideast.”
Mr. Graham said the U.S. has to show “resolve, but we have to be smart.” He said he still plans to travel to Egypt with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, in the near future.
“We can’t let them get away with this. We have to stand up to them,” he said.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, agreed that the government is taking appropriate action.
“We need to take every precaution necessary, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” Mr. Ruppersberger said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Mr. King said he often disagrees with the Obama administration on matters of national security, but supports the steps its officials have taken in recent days.
“They’d be derelict if they were not,” he said on “This Week.” “[A]s far as this worldwide alert, I think it’s absolutely warranted in this situation.”
Mr. McCaul said the State Department warning is significant because al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is probably the biggest threat to the U.S.
“They’re the al Qaeda faction that still talks about hitting the West and hitting the homeland,” he said. “And their expertise is chemical explosives, hitting the aviation sector, as we saw with the underwear bomber. So we are on a high state of alert.”
Retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the terrorist threat is an indication that the danger posed by al Qaeda is not over.
“You have a real danger to Americans, you want to be cautious,” Mr. Hayden said. “The announcement itself might also be designed to interrupt al Qaeda planning, to put them … on the back foot, to let them know that we’re alert, and that we’re onto at least a portion of this plot line.”