Intercepted al Qaeda message led to shuttering embassies, consulates
(CNN) — An intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives in the last several days raised alarm bells that led to the closing of embassies and consulates Sunday across the Middle East and North Africa, CNN has learned.
CNN has agreed to a request from an Obama administration official not to publish or broadcast additional details because of the sensitivity of the information.
Several U.S. officials also emphasized they have been watching growing threats emerging from Yemen for weeks.
Those threats, combined with the coming end of the month of Ramadan, plus the concern over several major prison breaks in the region, all contributed to the U.S. decision to shut down diplomatic installations.
The shuttering of 22 U.S. embassies and consulates for the day Sunday amid fears of an al Qaeda attack is an unprecedented move.
“We’re doing what is necessary to protect our people,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.
The closures stretch across a swath of North Africa and the Middle East, from Mauritania to Oman. Bangladesh and Afghanistan, both majority Muslim nations, also are affected.
The shutdowns could extend beyond Sunday, a senior State Department official said. A U.S. global travel alert is also in place.
As White House and national security officials met to discuss the threat and U.S. military forces in the Middle East were put on a higher state of alert, Interpol warned that al Qaeda has been tied to prison breaks in the region that led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals.
It’s unclear what locations are targeted by the apparent terror plot, U.S. lawmakers said Sunday.
“I think we know a lot more about the when than the where. And you can tell that from the breadth of the closures across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula,” Schiff said. “But the when was very specific in terms of a Sunday. Obviously, that may continue and the closures may continue. The travel warning is more extensive. But this is not the usual kind of chatter, not the more generalized ‘death to the Americans’ or ‘death to great Satan.’ ”
CNN national security analyst Fran Fragos Townsend said there could be a strategic reason for shutting down the diplomatic offices.
“Once you take targets away, it buys you additional time to try and disrupt, to identify the cell, the operators in country and the region, and work with your partners in the region to try and, you know, get them in custody or disrupt the plot,” she said. “So, some of this operationally is about buying time.”
Of particular concern is Yemen, where the government is “on high alert against possible attacks in the days to come,” said a senior U.S. security official.
Over the weekend, the security around the U.S. Embassy in Yemen was even tighter than last year, when protesters raided it. At least 12 tanks were stationed within 500 meters of the building.
Britain, France and Germany also closed their embassies in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Sunday and Monday for security reasons. No other embassies are affected, they said.
Western targets under threat
“The threat appears to be much worse than it has (been) in a long time,” said a senior U.S. security official in Yemen.
Various Western targets — not just those tied to the United States — are under threat, two U.S. officials said.
Three sources said the United States has information that members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are in the final stages of planning for an unspecified attack.
One of the sources said such preparations appeared to have increased in recent days, with the approaching end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Sunday is Laylet al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, one of the holiest moments on the Muslim calendar.
Said one U.S. official: “It all leads us to believe something could happen in the near future.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday that it was “one of the most specific and credible threats I’ve seen perhaps since 9/11.”
“Because of the specificity, because of where it is coming from, the credibility of it, the level of chatter, it seems to be a fairly large operation,” he said. “It’s giving the intelligence community quite a bit of pause right now.”
Concerns about Yemen
U.S. officials said that based on intelligence, they were particularly concerned about the U.S. Embassy in Yemen between Saturday and Tuesday. President Barack Obama, amid regular updates on the situation, has directed officials to take all appropriate steps to protect Americans.
Hundreds of additional security forces were deployed, and roads leading to the embassy were closed. Checkpoints were set up at a distance from the embassy, and trucks weren’t allowed to pass anywhere near the main embassy road.
Yemen’s special forces, the most elite, were seen in small numbers near the embassy as well.
The UK Foreign Office has also warned its citizens against travel to Yemen, and it urged British nationals to leave as soon as possible.
“If you don’t leave the country now while commercial carriers are still flying, it is extremely unlikely that the British government will be able to evacuate you or provide consular assistance,” it said.
In Sanaa, some said concerns about attacks were overblown.
Wagdi Al-Absi, a university professor based there, told CNN that the threats and warnings are exaggerated.
“Al Qaeda was a real threat and very powerful in Yemen two years ago. Still, embassies did not close,” he said. “Today, when al Qaeda is handicapped, the West considers them a real threat. It’s the total opposite.
“Streets in Yemen are normal, and security forces are always on the watch. That is why al Qaeda attacks in the capital are not common.”
Time of attack unknown
The expected time of an attack is unknown, which explains why a U.S. travel alert extends through August.
“Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests,” the alert states. “U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called the information “the most specific I’ve seen.”
While the principal attention is on the Arabian Peninsula, he stressed to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “we can’t rule anything out.”
“We are focused on the Middle East, but it’s a potential series of attacks that really could be almost anyplace,” King said.
U.S. forces on alert
Select U.S. military forces in the Middle East were put on a higher state of alert.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel held a series of high-level meetings at the Pentagon “to take a look at what forces we have in the region” that can be used if there is an attack, a U.S. official told CNN.
These forces are at “quite a high state of readiness achieved only a handful of times in the last year,” the official said. He declined to be specific, but two other officials have told CNN that U.S. Navy amphibious ships in the Red Sea last week moved closer to Yemen.
There are also combat-equipped Marines in southern Spain and southern Italy that could begin moving in as little as one hour from getting orders.
The U.S. military has taken similar action in recent months, especially at times of unrest in Yemen and Egypt. These forces in the Red Sea, Spain and Italy have been regularly deployed to these areas since last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, when the U.S. military did not have forces nearby.
Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told CNN he had never seen embassy closures ordered across such a broad area.
“There have been incidents where they’ve closed down a number of embassies in the Middle East because the information is not specific enough to say that ‘embassy X’ got to be closed as opposed to other embassies,” said Hill, who joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1977.
“But I think this, closing all of these embassies in the Middle East to North Africa, is in fact unprecedented. At least, I didn’t see this during my career.”
Concerns after Benghazi
House leaders have been briefed, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters, adding that the travel alert and embassy closings provided “some understanding of the seriousness of the threat.”
King, who has also heard such briefings, applauded the government’s decision to close its diplomatic missions.
“I give them credit,” the Republican said of the Obama administration. “I think the government is doing exactly the right thing here.”
Such bipartisan agreement in Washington comes at a time when politicians are still scrutinizing the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consular compound in Benghazi, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Since then, Republicans have been pressing Obama’s administration for answers, with some accusing officials of covering up what happened in Benghazi and not doing enough to track down the attackers.
Eight GOP lawmakers are asking that incoming FBI Director James Comey brief Congress within 30 days about the investigation. They say the administration’s inquiry to date has been “simply unacceptable,” according to a draft letter obtained by CNN.
Earlier last week, Vice President Joe Biden and senior State Department officials went to Congress to discuss embassy security.
Biden also briefed congressional leadership, key committee chairmen and ranking members about the latest threat concerns, a source who attended the meeting said.
Another official said the recent intelligence might not have warranted such a response before the Benghazi attack, which created a political firestorm for the administration.
On Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the agency was taking the steps out of an abundance of caution.
List of closures
The following U.S. posts normally open on Sunday will be closed on Sunday.
U.S. Embassy Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
U.S. Consulate Dhahran, Saudi Arabia
U.S. Consulate Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq
U.S. Consulate Basra, Iraq
U.S. Consulate Erbil, Iraq
U.S. Embassy Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
U.S. Consulate Dubai, United Arab Emirates
U.S. Embassy Tripoli, Libya
U.S. Embassy Algiers, Algeria
U.S. Embassy Amman, Jordan
U.S. Embassy Cairo, Egypt
U.S. Embassy Djibouti, Djibouti
U.S. Embassy Dhaka, Bangladesh
U.S. Embassy Doha, Qatar
U.S. Embassy Kabul, Afghanistan
U.S. Embassy Khartoum, Sudan
U.S. Embassy Kuwait City, Kuwait
U.S. Embassy Manama, Bahrain
U.S. Embassy Muscat, Oman
U.S. Embassy Nouakchott, Mauritania
U.S. Embassy Sana’a, Yemen