WASHINGTON - The United States issued an extraordinary global travel warning to Americans Friday 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 tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This one comes with the scars still 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 other 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.
The statement said that al-Qaida or its allies might target either U.S. government or private American interests. The alert expires on Aug. 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.
U.S. 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, from the foiled Christmas Day 2009 effort to bomb an airliner over Detroit to the explosives-laden parcels intercepted the following year aboard cargo flights.
"Current information suggests that al-Qaida 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," a department statement said.
The alert was posted a day after the U.S. announced it would shut many diplomatic facilities Sunday. Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the department acted out of an "abundance of caution" and that some missions may stay closed for longer than a day. Sunday is a business day in Muslim countries, and the diplomatic offices affected stretch from Mauritania in northwest Africa to Afghanistan.
"I don't know if I can say there was a specific threat," said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the House Foreign Affairs Committee's top Democrat, who was briefed on the State Department's decision. "There is concern over the potentiality of violence."
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, U.S. officials played down any connection. They said the threat wasn't directed toward a specific American diplomatic facility.