U.S. State Department Cautiously On Alert

U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the Muslim world will be closed on Sunday and possible for longer. The State Department says it is taking the step "out of an abundance of caution" and wouldn't say if they are receiving direct threats. Members of Congress say there are concerns about an al-Qaida-linked attack. Last year, the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed in Benghazi, along with three other Americans. At that time, there were also violent protests at U.S. embassies in Cairo and Tunisia.

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The State Department is taking an unusual step this weekend: fighting potential terrorist attacks. It's closing all U.S. embassies and consulates that are normally open on Sundays, that means diplomatic facilities in predominantly Muslim countries. Officials say they've made the decision out of an abundance of caution, and they're warning Americans traveling abroad this month to be cautious as well. NPR's Michele Kelemen has our story.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The State Department says for the month of August, Americans should be on alert for possible terrorist attacks in the Middle East and North Africa. In its latest worldwide caution released today, it says there is information that al-Qaida and its affiliates are plotting attacks in the region and beyond, and it urges American travelers to be aware of their surroundings and public transportation systems and in tourist areas.

There are a couple of reasons why this month might be of concern, says Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator who now runs the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: We're coming up on the 15th anniversary of the attacks on the embassies in East Africa, in Nairobi and in Darussalam - that was an iconic moment for al-Qaida - and, of course, Benghazi a year ago on September 11. So, you know, there's a lot of turnout there, and those may be factoring into the whole picture.

KELEMEN: That deadly attack in Benghazi when the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed made the State Department far more cautious, Benjamin says. He calls this the new normal for his former colleagues, especially in a region in turmoil.

BENJAMIN: There are a number of posts where local security really can't be relied upon to protect the post, and there's still a regional terrorist threat.

KELEMEN: The State Department is raising particular concerns about plots in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. Benjamin says the al-Qaida affiliate in that region has, in his words, some ingenious bomb makers.

BENJAMIN: The center of gravity in terms of al-Qaida's ability to carry out attacks has shifted largely to Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is quite a dangerous organization.

KELEMEN: Britain has announced that it too is closing its embassy in Yemen on Sunday and Monday and it's urging its citizens there to leave. Intelligence sources tell NPR there's been a lot of chatter about the possibility of attacks on embassies in the region as the holy month of Ramadan comes to a close. There's also been concern about recent prison breaks in Iraq, where more than 400 militants escaped.

Publicly, officials won't say much about the threats, though the fact that they're closing so many diplomatic posts suggests that the threats aren't specific enough. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf calls the closures a precautionary step.

MARIE HARF: The department, when conditions warrant, takes steps like this to balance our continued operations with security and safety.

KELEMEN: But it is unusual for such an order from Washington. Twenty-one posts will be closed on Sunday, and it's not clear when they'll reopen. State Department officials suggest that the closures could continue into next week, and more embassies and consulates might have to suspend their operations. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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