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US extends embassy closures over al Qaeda threat

AFP

The State Department announced Sunday that 19 US missions in the Middle East and North Africa will remain closed until August 10 due to concern over a possible al Qaeda threat. The list includes 15 that were closed Sunday and four additional posts.

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Following a weekend of heightened security alerts, the US on Sunday extended the closures of some of its diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa in response to what has been called “the most serious” and widespread threat “in the last several years”.

US diplomatic posts in 19 cities will remain closed through Saturday, Aug. 10, out of “abundance of caution,'' State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Sunday. The extension, she added, was “not an indication of a new threat”.

The extension included US diplomatic missions in Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among other countries. Four new sites in Africa – Madagascar, Burundi, Rwanda and Mauritius – were added to the list.

Meanwhile, some of the posts closed over the weekend would reopen Monday, including those in Kabul and Baghdad, said Psaki.

Reporting from Washington, FRANCE 24 correspondent Philip Crowther said the Obama administration had provided very little information on the reasons behind the closure extensions of some posts.

“There has been very little information provided by the administration. Anything on this comes from members of Congress or the military who have been briefed on the matter,” said Crowther. “From what we’re hearing, it points towards al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the most likely origin of this threat pointing toward Western – and not only US – interests.”

France, Britain and Germany have closed their embassies in Yemen on Sunday and Monday. British authorities said some embassy staff in Yemen had been withdrawn “due to security concerns”.

Yemen is home to AQAP, al Qaeda's most dangerous branch, which was responsible for a number of recent plots targeting the US – including the foiled Christmas Day 2009 effort by Nigerian national, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to bomb an airliner over Detroit.

Ramadan-end coincides with US embassy bombings anniversary

The latest threat alert came weeks after AQAP confirmed that the group’s deputy leader, Saeed al-Shihri, was killed in a US drone strike while speaking on his mobile phone in the province of Saadah, north of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

Meanwhile, Interpol, the French-based international police agency, has also issued a global security alert in connection with suspected al Qaeda involvement in the recent prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.

The timing of the diplomatic mission closures also coincides with the 15th anniversary of the August 7, 1998, bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

This year, the anniversary falls toward the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, noted Crowther. “People in the know say that all this coming together points to a credible threat that’s ongoing,” he said.

Last week, the US State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning Americans that al Qaeda may be planning attacks in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

Chatter ‘very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11’

The unprecedented closure of a number of Western diplomatic missions in the Middle East region followed intelligence interceptions of "chatter" – or communications among terrorism suspects about likely terror plots, according to US lawmakers.

“This is the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years,'' said US Senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press,” over the weekend, Chambliss said the chatter was "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11”.

NSA surveillance in the news again

The Obama administration's decision to close several diplomatic missions in the Middle East and Africa comes at a sensitive time as lawmakers have been discussing the fallout of extensive NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance programmes, which were leaked by former US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

“The NSA is in the headline again, but positively this time,” noted Crowther. “A lot of lawmakers, who know what the NSA does, say that it was precisely these programmes that had been revealed by Edward Snowden that were helpful in getting the information on the possible threats coming over the weekend.”

“The good news is that we picked up intelligence. And that's what we do. That's what NSA does," Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC's "This Week."

But some Congressmen said that there was no indication the latest alerts had originated from domestic interceptions.

While noting that he takes the recent threat “very seriously,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he had not seen any evidence linking the latest warnings to that agency's collection of “vast amounts of domestic data.''

Speaking on CNN over the weekend, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the closures indicated that the Obama administration had learned lessons after the September 11, 2012, attack on the US diplomatic post in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.

"Benghazi was a complete failure,” said Graham. “The threats were real there. The reporting was real. And we basically dropped the ball. We've learned from Benghazi, thank God, and the administration is doing this right."
 

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