The State Department will reopen 18 U.S. embassies and consulates tomorrow that were temporarily closed amid a terrorist threat, while keeping two diplomatic posts shut over concerns of an attack by extremist groups.
The embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, “will remain closed because of ongoing concerns about a threat stream indicating the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday. The U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, which was ordered evacuated on Aug. 8 because of a separate threat, will also stay closed.
The U.S. shut down almost two dozen embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia on Aug. 4 and issued a worldwide travel alert in response to concerns that al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, was planning an attack.
There was no immediate explanation of why the 18 embassies and consulates will be reopened if the threat from the Yemen- based group remains. Most of the closures, which began Aug. 4, had been extended until today.
“We will continue to evaluate the threats to Sana’a and Lahore and make subsequent decisions about the reopening of those facilities based on that information,” Psaki said in the statement. Most of the Lahore consulate’s staff, except for emergency personnel, have been evacuated, the State Department said earlier.
The mission closings across much of the Muslim world were prompted by the intercept of communications between Ayman al- Zawahiri, the chief of al-Qaeda, and the head of the organization’s Yemen branch, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. The State Department has urged Americans to leave Yemen.
Some U.S. intelligence officials and others say the relative ease with which U.S. officials intercepted communications among top al-Qaeda leaders — especially amid a worldwide debate about electronic eavesdropping — may indicate that the calls were designed as a deliberate distraction, a publicity stunt or a test of American surveillance capabilities.
Lawmakers had generally endorsed the closures this week. Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said the precaution was taken in response to “chatter” among terrorists that was “reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”
President Barack Obama said regional groups such as al- Qaeda’s Yemen branch pose a threat to American interests, even as the central al-Qaeda organization based in Pakistan has been weakened since the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden.
“We still have these regional organizations, like AQAP, that can pose a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and kill some people,” Obama said yesterday at a White House news conference.
“It means that we’ve got to continue to be vigilant and go after known terrorists who are potentially carrying out” plots, Obama said.
The threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is attributable largely to its chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri.
U.S. officials have said the Saudi national designed the underwear bomb worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. Abdulmutallab was arrested after the bomb malfunctioned.
Asiri is also considered responsible for attempting to kill a Saudi deputy minister that year by designing a device that was implanted inside a suicide bomber’s body cavity. The explosion killed the bomber; his Saudi target survived.
Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee this week released the names of 25 al-Qaeda militants alleged to be plotting attacks in the country, including Asiri, the Yemeni defense ministry said on its website.
One source of tension with the U.S. in both Yemen and Pakistan is the U.S. use of drones against suspected terrorists.
Obama yesterday again declined to acknowledge the covert strikes, saying, “I’m not going to discuss specific operations that have taken place.”
The 18 embassies and consulates that will reopen after being closed this week are located in Madagascar, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Burundi, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Qatar, Sudan, Rwanda, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Mauritius and Libya.
Editors: Michael Shepard and Ted Bunker.