WASHINGTON — The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert Friday warning citizens of potential terror attacks in the Middle East and North Africa by al-Qaida and its affiliates.
“Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August,” the department said. The attacks are seen as occurring in or emanating from the Arabian peninsula, according to the statement, and “may involve public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
The department also listed Friday 21 U.S. embassies and consulates that will be closed this weekend as a precaution. Those being shut are in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, including in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to a list posted on the department’s website.
“The Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday,” department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday.
The British Foreign Office said Friday on its Twitter feed that its embassy in Yemen will be closed Aug. 4-5, with some staff being temporarily withdrawn. It said embassies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Bahrain will be open Aug. 4, though staff are advised to be extra-vigilant.
Delta Air Lines, US Airways and American Airlines are monitoring the travel situation and haven’t issued waivers letting passengers rebook flights without paying fees, spokesmen said. United Airlines declined to comment.
Cindy Baldwin, owner of Baldwin Travel, Londonderry, said no customers have expressed trepidation about traveling overseas in light of the warning. She said nobody has cancelled any itineraries and customers continue to inquire about traveling to Europe — vacations in Greece and Ireland were inquired about on Friday, she said.
“I’ve even had someone say they’re interested in going to Tel Aviv,” she said, referring to Israel’s second-largest city. “No one has said anything” about the travel warnings.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Maryland, said information coming in to security officials warranted a broad warning to citizens.
“We got intelligence, and not just the normal chitchat, that there could be an attack on Americans or our allies,” Ruppersberger told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. “Putting it out there, that also gives notice to the people that are planning it: We know something’s out there.”
There’s always a chance that the information on the planned attacks is intentionally misleading in an attempt to divert attention and security from the location, timing or nature of an actual plot, said an official in a U.S. agency who called the intelligence credible but not ironclad and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The State Department pledged to increase security at embassies and consulates after the attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The Central Intelligence Agency said it had repeatedly warned the State Department of terrorist threats in Benghazi before the attack, according to emails released later by the White House.
The State Department had issued a similar warning of possible attacks before that.
Harf also pointed reporters to a “Worldwide Caution” the department issued in February of this year warning Americans that “current information suggests that al-Qaida, its affiliated organizations, and other terrorist organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions.”
That caution said that security threat levels remain high in Yemen and that Iraq is “dangerous and unpredictable.” It also said al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is active in Algeria, has attacked Westerners near the borders with Mali and Libya, and has claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing of Westerners throughout the region.
Rep. Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday on CNN that it’s his understanding that the latest threat “emanates in the Middle East and in Central Asia.”
Royce last month introduced legislation for embassy security that would provide 9 percent less funding than was allocated for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
The announcement that embassies will be closed this weekend came after terrorist groups freed prisoners in several countries.
On July 22 hundreds of prisoners, including senior al-Qaida figures, escaped from Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. On July 27, more than 1,000 detainees escaped from detention in Benghazi. A July 30 Taliban attack on a prison facility in northwest Pakistan freed more than 250 prisoners.
Also, newly discovered 2011 papers suggest that the terrorist group considered taking hostages in an effort to stop strikes by unmanned U.S. aircraft.
Documents purportedly from al-Qaida fighters in Mali and obtained by the Associated Press outline a strategy of kidnapping “in exchange for the drone strategy.”
Kidnappings would “bring back the pressure of the American public opinion in a more active way” against drones, according to the papers, which the New York-based news service translated from Arabic. The document is focused on Yemen.
In Pakistan, where such U.S. strikes aimed at terrorists have been an irritant to relations, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that drone attacks may end soon.
“I think the program will end, as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” Kerry said in an interview broadcast by the PTV network in Pakistan.
“I think the president has a very real timeline, and we hope it’s going to be very, very soon,” Kerry said.
The British Foreign Office said it will review safety at its embassies after the U.S. announcement, according to the Telegraph newspaper.