U.S. embassies in Mideast, North Africa prepare to close over security threat

August 3, 2013

U.S. embassies and other installations across a wide arc of the Middle East and North Africa prepared Saturday to close or take additional precautions against a threat linked to al-Qaeda that could be directed against U.S. interests overseas Sunday.

President Obama’s top national security advisers met at the White House on Saturday to discuss the potential threat of terrorist attacks. The White House said top officials including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice gathered to discuss the matter.

“Early this week, the president instructed his National Security team to take all appropriate steps to protect the American people in light of a potential threat occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula,” the White House said in a statement.

“This afternoon, National Security Advisor Rice chaired a meeting with the Principals Committee to further review the situation and follow-up actions,” it said, referring to the group of advisers.

Interpol issued a global security alert Saturday warning its 190 member countries to be more watchful for signs of violence following prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The international law enforcement agency said it is investigating to determine whether the breaks, which freed hundreds of militants, are related.

Interpol advised that since al-Qaeda is suspected in some of the prison incidents, member nations should be on the lookout for information that might point to any coordination among the attacks, and to locate the escapees.

A Taliban-led prison break in Pakistan on Wednesday freed hundreds of militants. A sophisticated and heavily armed July 22 assault on Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison freed about 500 convicts, including al-Qaeda operatives. In Benghazi, Libya, more than 1,000 inmates broke out of a prison July 27.

The Interpol alert followed an unusual worldwide caution for American travelers issued Friday that warned that the al-Qaeda terror network may by planning attacks in August, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa.

The travel alert was based on unspecified intelligence information about threats. The warning came a day after the State Department order that 21 embassies and consulates close on Sunday, usually a workday in the Middle East and several other regions.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said the closures and travel warning are not related to rumors of a possible military crackdown Sunday by the Egyptian military against protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Britain also announced that its embassy in Yemen will close on Sunday and Monday, citing heightened security concerns related to the closing days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Eid holiday that follows. Ramadan ends Wednesday. Germany had already announced a similar move.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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