The United States issued an extraordinary global travel warning to Americans about the threat of an al-Qaida attack and closed down 21 embassies and consulates across the Muslim world for the weekend.
The alert was the first of its kind since an announcement preceding the 10th anniversary of the September 11 2001, terrorist attacks.
A September 11 attack last year on a US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
“There is a significant threat stream, and we’re reacting to it,” said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In an interview to be shown tomorrow, he told ABC that the threat was “more specific” than previous ones and the “intent is to attack Western, not just US interests”.
A New York Times report said the US had intercepted electronic communications among senior operatives of al-Qaida.
The warning said al-Qaida or its allies might target either US government or private American interests. The alert expires on August 31.
The State Department said the potential for terrorism was particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa, with a possible attack occurring on or coming from the Arabian Peninsula.
US officials pointed specifically to Yemen, the home of al-Qaida’s most dangerous offshoot and the network blamed for several notable terrorist plots on the United States.
“Current information suggests that al Qaida and affiliated organisations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August,” a department statement said.
The State Department urged US travellers to take extra precautions overseas, citing potential dangers involved with public transportation systems and other prime sites for tourists. It noted that previous terrorist attacks centred on underground and rail networks as well as planes and boats.
The alert was posted a day after the US announced it would shut many diplomatic buildings tomorrow. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said some missions might stay closed for longer than a day.
Sunday is a business day in Muslim countries and the diplomatic offices affected stretch from Mauritania in north-west Africa to Afghanistan.
Although the warning coincided with Al-Quds Day, the last Friday of the Islamic month of Ramadan when people in Iran and some Arab countries express their solidarity with the Palestinians and their opposition to Israel, US officials played down any connection.
They said the threat was not directed toward a specific US diplomatic centre.
The concern by American officials over the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is not new, given the terror branch’s gains in territory and reach during Yemen’s prolonged Arab Spring-related instability.
The group made significant territorial gains last year, capturing towns and cities in the south amid a power struggle in the capital that ended with the resignation of Yemen’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A US-aided counter-offensive by the government has since pushed the militants back.
Yemen’s current president, Abdo Rabby Mansour Hadi, met US president Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday, where both cited strong counter-terrorism co-operation. Earlier this week, Yemen’s military reported a US drone strike killed six alleged al Qaida militants in the group’s southern strongholds.
As recently as June, the group’s commander, Qasim al-Rimi, released an Arabic-language video urging attacks on US targets and praising the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of carrying out the deadly Boston Marathon bombings in April.
“The blinking red intelligence appears to be pointing towards an al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula plot,” said Seth Jones, counter-terror expert at the Rand Corpration.
Britain also took action in Yemen, announcing it would close its embassy there tomorrow and Monday as a precaution.
Britain, which closely co-ordinates on intelligence matters with Washington, stopped short of releasing a similar region-wide alert but added that some embassy staff in Yemen had been withdrawn “due to security concerns”.
British embassies and consulates elsewhere in the Middle East will remain open.