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The United States took the unusual step of issuing a worldwide travel alert to its citizens on Friday, warning of a “significant threat” of an al Qaeda terrorist attack between now and the end of August.
The travel alert, the first of its kind to be issued by the US since an announcement preceding the 10th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, warned of “the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure”.
The US State Department said the potential for an attack was particularly acute in the Middle East and North Africa and urged US travelers to take extra precautions overseas.
The US intercepted electronic communications among senior al Qaeda figures, according to officials quoted by The New York Times.
“There is a significant threat stream, and we’re reacting to it,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told ABC in an interview to be aired Sunday that the threat was “more specific” than previous ones and the “intent is to attack Western, not just US interests”.
The alert came a day after the US announced the closure of 21 embassies and consulates across the Muslim world for the weekend as a security precaution.
Yemen could be focus of attacks
US officials pointed to Yemen as one of the areas most at risk of a terror attack. The country is the home of al Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot and the network blamed for several notable terrorist plots on the United States.
“Current information suggests that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations 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,” the State Department said.
The concern by American officials over the Yemen-based al Qaeda 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 counteroffensive by the government has since pushed the militants back.
Yemen’s current president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, met with President Obama at the White House on Thursday, where both leaders cited strong counterterrorism cooperation. Earlier this week, Yemen’s military reported a US drone strike killed six alleged al Qaeda 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.
France, Britain close embassies in Yemen
Meanwhile, France and Britain also took action in Yemen, announcing they would close their embassies there on Sunday and Monday as a precaution.
French President François Hollande warned French citizens in Yemen to take whatever precautions needed to protect their safety.
“We have information that has led us to believe that the threat is extremely serious,” Hollande said.
Britain, which closely coordinates on intelligence matters with Washington, stopped short of releasing a region-wide alert but added that some embassy staff in Yemen had been withdrawn “due to security concerns”.
The British Foreign Office also advised the country’s nationals against all travel to Yemen and urged any remaining Britons to leave the country.
“Our travel advice advises particular vigilance during Ramadan, when tensions could be heightened,” a ministry spokesman said.