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State Department Travel Alert Reflects Increased Turmoil, Resurgent al-Qaida

August 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The State Department issued a global travel alert to warn Americans abroad of a potential terrorist attack before the end of August. Twenty-one U.S. embassies and consulates will be closed over the weekend in mostly Muslim countries. Margaret Warner joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss why the alert covers an unusually large area.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. State Department issued a global travel alert today, citing a threat from al-Qaida. The statement particularly warned American citizens in the Middle East and North Africa. It said al-Qaida “may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August.”

Twenty-one embassies and consulates will be closed this weekend in mostly Muslim nations, stretching from West Africa to Bangladesh, as a result of the increased threat.

Margaret Warner has been reporting on this all day and joins me now.

Welcome, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: What have do we know about the specifics — how specific the threat is?

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MARGARET WARNER: Well, first, we have to start to say that those who really know aren’t talking in detail, and a lot of those talking and speculating don’t know.

But we do know that there was a lot of credible — an increase in credible what’s called chatter over the last week to two weeks, perhaps bolstered by something very specific this week. We do know that it was fairly specific as to timing, that something big is in the works some time in this period covered, either — especially from now until early next week where the embassies are closed and really through the rest of the month potentially.

What is not known, apparently, is location or targets, not location geographic necessarily or targets, but the threat does come from or connected to the radical organization, the jihadi organization in — headquartered in Yemen AQAP, or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which, as you will recall, was behind the Christmas Day bomber of 2009, also the plot to try to send explosives through the air in 2010.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what does it mean for the embassies and for travelers right now?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Jeff, for embassies, they’re not sending personnel home, but it means that Sunday, which would be the start of the workweek in the Muslim world, they will be closed. That means local staff will come in. No members of the public will come in, nobody needing a visa or wanting to see the consular section.

And in many areas, many of the staff inside the compounds won’t come out. But these compounds are heavily fortified and many people live on — they’re like a base. And those people may go to work.

What it means for travelers — and now, again, this is not a worldwide travel ban, but what’s curious or interesting to me in this travel alert is the focus on public transportation systems, to avoid public transportation, to remember that terrorists are good at attacking subways and trains and airplanes. And that focus I think is worth travelers taking a — taking note.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, I want to pull that map back up because it’s really notable what a large area this is. How unusual is that, and why such a large stretch?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the State Department cannot think of a precedent for this. I can’t say it’s unprecedented, but they can’t think of one.

This reflects not only an abundance of caution, which is what the State Department says, but also the fact that in the last two years during this turmoil of the Arab spring, a lot of these different al-Qaida wannabes or linked affiliates — that’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, but also al-Qaida in Northern Africa, or AQIM, and also a newly resurgent al-Qaida organization from Iraq which is now fighting in Syria — that they are all resurgent.

They have all taken more territory, the region’s awash in weapons, and that there’s a lot of interconnection, more than there used to be, among them. Furthermore, you had prison breaks in both Iraq and Libya which have released all these other hardened fighters. And you have got foreign fighters pouring into places like Syria and Iraq and also — and also the Arabian Peninsula.

So bottom line is, U.S. intelligence doesn’t think they’re all being directed by some master plotter al-Qaida core, but there is a belief that they’re no longer the neat little separate franchises they were once thought to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and watching a very wide area.

Margaret Warner, thanks so much.