WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rattled lawmakers in both parties applauded U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to shutter two dozen U.S. diplomatic posts across the Middle East and North Africa this weekend, calling the threat of a fresh terrorist attack credible, specific and the most alarming in years.
The State Department extended the closure through Saturday for 19 embassies, consulates and smaller posts “out of an abundance of caution,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a written statement Sunday. Several other posts, including embassies in Kabul and Baghdad, will reopen Monday.
Lawmakers who had received intelligence briefings joined a parade of security experts and administration officials in warning Sunday of the seriousness of the threat, which emanates from a particularly dangerous and active al-Qaida franchise in Yemen.
Neither the location nor the target of a potential attack is known, “but the intent seems clear,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC’s “This Week”: “The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S., interests.”
The Obama administration ordered the posts closed and issued a global travel warning to U.S. citizens on Friday, after U.S. intelligence agencies picked up communications among known terrorists discussing “certain dates” and being “specific as to how enormous it was going to be,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said on the same show. King serves on the House intelligence and homeland security committees.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Ga., the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, compared the intercepted “chatter” to data picked up before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“This is the most serious threat that I’ve seen in the last several years,” Chambliss said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Pressed for details, the senator added: “What we have heard is some specifics on what’s intended to be done and some individuals who are making plans, such as we saw before 9/11. Whether they are going to be suicide vests that are used, or whether they’re planning on vehicle-borne bombs being carried into an area, we don’t know. But we’re hearing some kind of that same chatter that we heard pre-9/11.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, echoed that view, saying, “The administration’s call to close these embassies . . . was actually a very smart call.” That’s particularly true, he said, in light of what Republicans view as the administration’s failure to respond to threats last year to the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
“I’m glad to see that in this case they’re taking this very seriously,” McCaul said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Soldiers closed roads, erected extra blast walls and increased patrols Sunday near some of the affected embassies and consulates, according to the Associated Press. They include posts in Yemen and Egypt, which were ordered to remain closed through the coming week. In Washington, analysts at the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center and other agencies continued to pore over signals, intercepts and other data, searching for clues.
“The intelligence community continues to look for additional information to provide better insight and more specificity with regard to the existing threat,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said.
The State Department has told U.S. citizens abroad to take extra precautions throughout the month, warning that terrorists have in the past attacked subways, railways, planes, boats “and other tourist infrastructure.” On Saturday, Interpol, the France-based international police agency, issued a global security alert, saying it suspects al-Qaida involvement in several recent prison breaks — including in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan — “which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals.”
Interpol noted that the heightened security fears coincide with the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday that Chambliss said “is always an interesting time for terrorists.” This week is also the anniversary of the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. And the Sept. 11 anniversary is just a few weeks away.
In addition, the head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently posted videos on jihadist websites saying that now is the time to retaliate for U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan, lawmakers said. The al-Qaida franchise in Yemen, which has targeted U.S. citizens in recent years, is a likely choice to wreak such revenge. The group asserted responsibility for the failed Christmas Day 2009 attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit.
“Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is probably the biggest threat to the homeland. They’re the al-Qaida faction that still talks about hitting the West and hitting the homeland. . . . So we are on a high state of alert,” McCaul said, adding that the threat is “very imminent.”
But McCaul, a former federal prosecutor who handled terrorism cases in Dallas, said the good thing about the State Department’s decision to issue alerts is that “you let them know that you know . . . and they oftentimes back down.”
Warnings of a possible terrorist plot come at an auspicious time for the National Security Agency, which has recently come under fire after the disclosure of surveillance programs that could threaten the privacy of millions of U.S. citizens. Lawmakers confirmed that the NSA was instrumental in teasing out information about the latest threat.
But King, a frequent critic of the Obama administration, dismissed suggestions that the White House could be exaggerating the situation to deflate the NSA’s critics.
“It’s absolutely crazy to say there’s any conspiracy here. . . . The government would have been totally negligent if it had not taken the actions taken,” King said.
“I’m a Republican. I’ve had problems with the administration on different issues,” he said. “But what they are doing now is what has to be done.”
Josh Hicks and Greg Miller contributed to this report.
© 2013, The Washington Post