The United States has closed virtually all of its embassies in the Middle East and has issued strong warnings to Americans in that region and in Northern Africa that a terrorist attack may be coming soon. This is reportedly based not just on the usual “chatter” but on eavesdropping on senior Al Qaeda operatives. (So aren’t you glad we have the NSA?)
The United States intercepted electronic communications this week among senior operatives of Al Qaeda, in which the terrorists discussed attacks against American interests in the Middle East and North Africa, American officials said Friday.
The intercepts and a subsequent analysis of them by American intelligence agencies prompted the United States to issue an unusual global travel alert to American citizens on Friday, warning of the potential for terrorist attacks by operatives of Al Qaeda and their associates beginning Sunday through the end of August.
The bulletin to travelers and expatriates, issued by the State Department, came less than a day after the department announced that it was closing nearly two dozen American diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa, including facilities in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Britain said Friday that it would close its embassy in Yemen on Monday and Tuesday because of “increased security concerns.”
It is unusual for the United States to come across discussions among senior Qaeda operatives about operational planning — through informants, intercepted e-mails or eavesdropping on cellphone calls. So when the high-level intercepts were collected and analyzed this week, senior officials at the C.I.A., State Department and White House immediately seized on their significance. Members of Congress have been provided classified briefings on the matter, officials said Friday.
“This was a lot more than the usual chatter,” said one senior American official who had been briefed on the information but would not provide details. Spokesmen for the State Department and the C.I.A. also declined to comment on the intercepts.
The importance of the intercepts was underscored by a speech that the Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, posted on jihadist forums on Tuesday. In his address, Mr. Zawahri called for attacks on American interests in response to its military actions in the Muslim world and American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors statements by jihadists.
Security analysts said Friday that in the aftermath of the furor over the Obama administration’s handling of the attack last year on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department is now more likely to publicize threat warnings when deemed credible, both to alert the public and to help deter any imminent attacks.
“A decision to close this many embassies and issue a global travel warning for a month suggests the threat is real, advanced and imminent but the intelligence is incomplete on where,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. case officer and a Brookings Institution scholar.
The embassy closings come toward the end of the Ramadan holidays and the approaching first anniversary of the terror attack Sept. 11 on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
“We are particularly concerned about the security situation in the final days of Ramadan and into Eid,” the British Foreign Office said in a statement, referring to the Muslim holy month that ends Wednesday evening.