WASHINGTON — The United States intercepted electronic communications this week among senior operatives of al-Qaida in which the terrorists discussed attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. officials said Friday.
The intercepts and a subsequent analysis by U.S. intelligence agencies prompted the United States to issue an unusual global travel alert to U.S. citizens Friday, warning of the potential for terrorist attacks by operatives of al-Qaida and their associates from Sunday through the end of August.
The bulletin to travelers and expatriates, issued by the State Department, came less than a day after the department said it was closing nearly two dozen U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East and North Africa, including embassies and consulates in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The closings will begin Sunday, the first day of the workweek in Middle Eastern countries, and will continue for at least a few days, officials said. Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said the facilities were being closed out of “an abundance of caution.”
Britain said Friday that it would close its embassy in Yemen on Monday and Tuesday because of “increased security concerns.”
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The travel alert was the first of its kind since an announcement preceding the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This one comes with the scars fresh from last year’s deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and with the Obama administration and Congress determined to prevent any similar breach of an American Embassy or consulate.
“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 News 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 U.S., interests.”
The State Department warning urged American travelers to take extra precautions overseas, citing potential dangers involved with public-transportation systems and prime sites for tourists, and noting that previous terrorist attacks have centered on subway and rail networks as well as airplanes and boats. It suggested travelers sign up for State Department alerts and register with U.S. consulates in the countries they visit.
Several officials, speaking anonymously to discuss intelligence matters, emphasized the degree of anxiety involved in issuing the travel alert.
“I’ve lived through a lot of threats, and this is a concerning one,” said a State Department official, who noted that the department rarely closes embassies and consulates. “Part of the reason that you put out information like this is to let the terrorist know that you are aware,” the official said, noting that publicity can have a deterrent effect.
An official of another agency said the level of concern within the government was unusually high, but there was “not a whole lot of detail.”
Delta Air Lines, US Airways and American Airlines are monitoring the travel situation and haven’t issued waivers letting passengers rebook flights without paying fees, spokesmen said. United Airlines declined to comment.
It is unusual for the United States to come across discussions among senior al-Qaida operatives about operational planning — through informants, intercepted emails or eavesdropping on cellphone calls. So when the high-level intercepts were collected and analyzed this week, senior officials at the CIA, State Department and White House seized on their significance. Members of Congress have been provided classified briefings on the matter, officials said Friday.
“This was a lot more than the usual chatter,” said one senior U.S. official who had been briefed on the information but would not provide details. Spokesmen at the State Department and the CIA declined to comment on the intercepts.
The importance of the intercepts was underscored by a speech the al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, posted on jihadist forums Tuesday.
Al-Zawahri called for attacks on U.S. interests in response to its military actions in the Muslim world and U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors statements by jihadists.
Security analysts said Friday that, after the furor over the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi attack, the State Department was more likely to publicize threat warnings when deemed credible, to alert the public and to help deter any imminent attacks.
“A decision to close this many embassies and issue a global travel warning for a month suggests the threat is real, advanced and imminent but the intelligence is incomplete on where,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA case officer and a Brookings Institution scholar.
The embassy closures come toward the end of the Ramadan holidays and the approaching anniversary of the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
“We are particularly concerned about the security situation in the final days of Ramadan and into Eid,” the British Foreign Office said in a statement, referring to the Muslim holy month that ends Wednesday evening.
White House officials publicly declined to discuss what specific information had prompted the increased alarm and alerts, citing a desire to protect classified sources and methods.
But intercepting electronic communications is one of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) main jobs, as the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, have underscored. At the request of intelligence officials, The New York Times withheld some details about the intercepted communications.
Some analysts and congressional officials suggested Friday that emphasizing a terrorist threat now was a good way to divert attention from the uproar over the NSA’s data-collection programs, and if it showed the intercepts uncovered a possible plot, even better.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday that the warning was linked to an al-Qaida threat focused on the Middle East and Central Asia.
To date, the only al-Qaida affiliate that has shown a desire and ability to attack U.S. facilities overseas is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
The al-Qaida affiliate announced in July that its second-in-command, Saeed al-Shihri, a former Guantánamo Bay prisoner, had died as a result of injuries sustained in a U.S. missile strike in Yemen last year. But Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the group’s seminal bomb maker, remains at large and, according to U.S. officials, has trained a cadre of skilled protégés ready to take his place should he be killed.
U.S. drones in the past week have carried out three strikes in Yemen, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks drone strikes.
Material from Bloomberg News, The Associated Press and the Tribune Washington Bureau is included in this report.