U.S. Embassies In The Muslim World Closed Sunday

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The Department of State has issued a travel alert over the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston speaks with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about the threat of more attacks.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel martin. Today, nearly two dozen U.S. embassies around the Middle East and North Africa, which would normally be open on a Sunday, are closed. And it's unclear when they will reopen. The U.K., France and Germany announced they too would close their diplomatic missions. But they have only done so in Yemen. The Obama administration has done all of this citing, quote, "a serious terrorist threat." The State Department also issued an unusual global travel alert to American citizens, warning of the potential of terrorist attacks, starting today continuing through the end of August. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins me in the studio to talk more about this. Dina, what do we know about this particular threat?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, we know that there's been an increase in what they call chatter. And some intercepts apparently were picked up from senior officials of al-Qaida that seemed to provide some clues about a possible attack. Representative Peter King, who heads a House subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, he said that the latest al-Qaida threat is serious and very specific. But closing 22 embassies and sparking a worldwide terrorism alert is hardly very specific. Law enforcement sources that I've spoken when have been much less dramatic about the threat than the congressman has been. There's something afoot certainly, but closing that many embassies belies this whole idea of specificity. The president's national security team met and they've briefed him on the latest.

MARTIN: So, the U.S. closes so many embassies; our allies only close a few. Why is that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there are a couple of scenarios, according to people familiar with these kinds of terrorism alerts. They know something is out there but they don't know exactly what it is. Or the more likely scenario is that the U.S. knows the likely target but doesn't want to give clues to ways and methods - or means and methods - and so they've provided a broader alert to do that. And there are some clues where the threat might be. One is Yemen. U.S. allies, as you said, have closed their embassies in Yemen because of the threat. And the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen is considered one of the group's most dangerous. The other possibility is Iraq. Overnight, the U.S. just closed another consulate in Iraq. Al-Qaida's arm in Iraq, which is thought to have been behind these prison jailbreaks last month that freed hundreds of operatives is really sort of getting more muscular and it's possible that they may have decided to turn to international targets. The way the chairman of the Joints Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, put it in an interview with ABC News is that the U.S. has seen a threat stream and it's reacting to it.

MARTIN: So, Dempsey mentions a stream of threats. Have all these closures and warnings been sparked by intercepted messages?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Some sort of communication theoretically or possibly by senior al-Qaida operatives, they say, though they haven't been very specific.

MARTIN: And, of course, this is all happening at a time when the National Security Agency, the NSA, has been under a lot of scrutiny for its surveillance programs.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, the House nearly passed legislation last month that would have curbed the NSA's programs. In the hearing last week, officials from the DNI and the NSA were grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And they were saying that they were open to tweaking the program. Now, all these same members are being briefed on this threat. So, the subject has changed 180 degrees to how effective these programs are. And officials have said that the threat could last all month.

MARTIN: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Thanks so much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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