News Column

Terror Fears Prompt Embassy Closings, Travel Cautions

August 5, 2013

What began as a worldwide terrorism warning for US diplomatic posts and citizens abroad spread Monday to other governments as Pakistan braced for more Taliban attacks and European nations kept some embassies closed.

The United States plans to keep an unprecedented 19 embassies closed until Saturday in much of the Muslim world - from East and North Africa across the Middle East.

The greatest concern was in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, where Germany, France and Britain prolonged their Sunday closures into the coming week.

While Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, was not on the list for US embassy closures, the government itself was on high alert Monday after a warning by intelligence agencies that the homegrown Taliban might be planning the "biggest ever" attack in major cities.

Prisons, airports, top political leaders, Western embassies and military installations were the likely targets, Pakistan officials said.

"Our men are searching through the hills," Islamabad Police Chief Sikandar Hayat said. "We have a very specific threat."

The threat picked up by US security services was less specific.

Ahead of the US worldwide travel alert issued Friday, communications had been intercepted between senior al-Qaeda members discussing plans for operations in the region, according to The New York Times, which cited US officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

It is unusual for communications between high-ranking al-Qaeda members to be intercepted, and the CIA, State Department and White House as well as members of Congress were briefed on the matter, the newspaper said.

Declining to comment on specific intelligence behind the move, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We believe that this threat is significant, and we are taking it seriously for that reason and have taken the actions that the State Department announced out of an abundance of caution."

No additional intelligence had led to the extension of the embassy closures, he said. The threat emanated from the Arabian Peninsula and was likely directed in the region but could potentially be "beyond that or elsewhere," Carney said.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stressed that security was paramount but said the US hoped to reopen the embassies as soon as possible: "We have a mission on the ground in these places."

The reason for the unprecedented embassy and consulate closures appeared to be strategic in nature, CNN national security analyst Frances Fragos Townsend said.

"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 ... get them in custody or disrupt the plot," she said.

After an emergency meeting of crisis staff in Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry said there was still "no concrete evidence of concrete threats."

Spokesman Andreas Peschke said there was an "extraordinary high security alert" for Germany's diplomatic outposts in the entire Middle East, above all in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt. The German embassy in Sana'a was closed for an extra day on Monday.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Sana'a embassy would remain closed through Wednesday. The British Foreign Office said it would keep its Yemen embassy closed at least to the end of the Eid al-Fitr festival on Thursday, when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan comes to an end.

Experts said the escalating terrorism danger accompanies Eid, which falls on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the region and interpretation by local imams of the moon phase.

Interpol has called for increased vigilance after a series of assisted prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan in which al-Qaeda involvement was suspected. The attacks led to the escapes of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals.

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Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH

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