Secretary of State John Kerry gives policy address on same-sex spouses applying for U.S. visas, Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, at the U.S. Embassy in London. The U.S. will immediately begin considering visa applications of gay and lesbian spouses in the same manner as heterosexual couples, Kerry said on Friday. (AP Photo/Jason Reed. Pool)
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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 U.S.-aided counteroffensive by the government has since pushed the militants back.
Yemen’s current president, Abdo Rabby Mansour Hadi, met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday, where both leaders cited strong counterterrorism cooperation. Earlier this week, Yemen’s military reported a U.S. 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 U.S. targets and praising the ethnic Chechen brothers accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings. “Making these bombs has become in everyone’s … reach,” he said, according to the English subtitles on the video, reposted by private U.S. intelligence firm the IntelCenter.
“The blinking red intelligence appears to be pointing toward an Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula plot,” said Seth Jones, counterterror expert at the Rand Corp., referring to the branch of al-Qaida known as AQAP.
Britain also took action Friday in Yemen, announcing it would close its embassy there on Sunday and Monday as a precaution.
Britain, which closely coordinates 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 were to remain open.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said the embassy threat was linked to al-Qaida and concerned the Middle East and Central Asia.
“In this instance, we can take a step to better protect our personnel and, out of an abundance of caution, we should,” Royce said. He declined to say if the National Security Agency’s much-debated surveillance program helped reveal the threat.
The New York Times reported Friday night that American officials said the U.S. had intercepted electronic communications among senior operatives of al-Qaida.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, also supported the department’s decision to go public with its concerns.
“The most important thing we have to do is protect American lives,” he said, describing the threat as “not the regular chitchat” picked up from would-be militants on the Internet or elsewhere.
The State Department issued another warning a year ago about potential violence connected to the Sept. 11 anniversary. Dozens of American installations were besieged by protests over reports of an anti-Islam video made by an American resident, and in Benghazi, Libya, the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed when militants assaulted a diplomatic post.
The administration no longer says Benghazi was related to the demonstrations. But the attack continues to be a flashpoint of contention with Republicans in Congress who say Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in the government misled the country about the nature of the attack after failing to provide adequate diplomatic protection.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Sagar Meghani and Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
« ST. ANDREWS, Scotland (AP) — Inbee Park caught the bad end of the draw at St. Andrews, made worse by not having her best golf. Before she can think about a chance to make history as the first golfer to win four professional majors in the same season, Park faced a more immediate concern Friday afternoon in the Women’s British Open — how to make up an eight-shot deficit against Na Yeon Choi. “I’m so far back,” Park said after a birdie on the final hole to salvage a 1-over 73. “We need some tough conditions.” The last time there was talk about a Grand Slam in this area of Scotland was 11 years ago, across the Firth of Forth at Muirfield, where Tiger Woods was going for the third leg of the slam. A nasty storm that arrived without warning blew him off course to an 81 in the third round and that was the end of it. This wind at St. Andrews was the strongest of the week, though nothing out of the ordinary. Choi played four groups behind Park and turned in a command performance, making six birdies for a 5-under 67 that gave her a one-shot lead over Miki Saiki of Japan going into the weekend. Saiki set the Old Course record for the Women’s British Open with a 66 in the morning, where the only nuisance was a few bursts of showers. Choi’s 67 was 8.4 shots better than the average score of those who played in the afternoon, and one of only three rounds in the 60s. Conditions were so demanding that when Choi was asked to give details of her six birdies, the South Korean couldn’t recall much further back than the 17th hole. “Five hours out there, this kind of weather, it’s hard to remember,” she said. It’s a round Park would like to forget, one that will make her quest even more difficult to add to her trio of majors this year. “A little bit of everything wasn’t working well out there today,” Park said. “I don’t feel like I played horrible today. A little bit unlucky with the draw, not playing in the morning when it’s lovely. But that’s the way it is.” Her problems started on the opening hole, when her approach over the Swilcan Burn rode the wind and bounced beyond the green some 50 feet from the flag. Her chip only got halfway there, and she two-putted for bogey. Park was never under par at any point in her round. A birdie on the sixth was offset by a three-putt bogey on the 10th. A birdie on the 12th was followed by a bogey on the 13th, in part due to a bad break. On the toughest driving hole on the back nine, Park hit her best tee shot — only for it to roll into a sand-filled divot. Her approach came up just short of the green, and she hit putter down the slope and 10 feet past the cup. Her approach to the 17th ran up the left side of the Road Hole Bunker and left her about 60 feet, and she hit another poor lag — short and 8 feet to the right — leading to her second three-putt of the round, and fourth of the tournament. At least she still had 36 holes — and plenty of hope — remaining to get back in the race. It was tough for everyone in the afternoon — except for Choi, who had a score that looked as if she were on the New Course — and Park isn’t ruling herself out. Neither is anyone else. “The tough, gritty players can win this,” Stacy Lewis said after a hard-fought 72 left her five shots behind. “Anybody under par is not out of this.” Morgan Pressel took another step toward locking up a spot on the Solheim Cup team with a 70 in the morning, leaving her two shots out of the lead. She now can think squarely about the Women’s British Open, and perhaps adding a second major to the Kraft Nabisco Championship she won in 2007 as an 18-year-old. Nicole Castrale, also making a last-ditch effort to make the Solheim Cup team, shot 34 on the tough back nine for a 70 and was in the group at 7-under 137 that included Jee Young Lee and Suzann Pettersen. Choi is a former U.S. Women’s Open champion, so she has proved she can handle difficult conditions. What helped was having her entire team with her this week — notably her Irish coach, Robin Symes, and his friend, who is working as a caddie. Her game management coaches, Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, also are at St. Andrews. She had to handle the blustery wind by herself. “I had a daily goal, so I just tried to stick with the goal,” Choi said. “It could be like par is 74 or 75 today. But I didn’t care — par 3, par 4, par 5, doesn’t matter to me. I just try to play one shot at a time, and I think that’s why I had great results.” Even as the second round was finishing, it was clear this was a special round. Birdies were mainly available on the outward nine, and it was all about hanging on from the 12th through the 17th holes. Choi hit a 3-hybrid off the tee on the 16th and a 3-wood into the green, and she hit driver and 3-wood to finish just short of the 17th green in two. From about 45 yards, she putted the ball to 3 feet for a tough par. Park spoke about having nerves before she teed off Thursday. She conceded after the second round she felt the pressure of this historic chance when she first arrived at St. Andrews. She didn’t see it as a burden, but an opportunity, saying that no matter what happens this week, it would teach her to handle any situation the rest of her career. “When you experience something big like this, some kind of big pressure like this, you’re just really not afraid of any kind of pressure,” Park said. “How can it get bigger than this? Anything is going to be less than this.” After making birdie on the 18th, she did an interview with ESPN and then Golf Channel. After that, she stopped for a group of Korean TV reporters, who shouted instructions on where she should stand and to the two employees holding microphones. When she spoke to 10 reporters afterward, someone asked if she imagined having so much media gathered around her to ask so many questions. “Well, this is pretty much the only week I’m going to get that much, so I should enjoy this moment,” Park said. A-Rod homers with drug penalties likely Monday »