What Do the Embassy Closures and Worldwide Alert Mean for Travelers?

BY Larisa Epatko  August 5, 2013 at 4:05 PM EST


Yemeni soldiers search a car at a checkpoint on a street leading to the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a on Sunday. Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images.

The decision to close U.S. embassies in the Mideast and North Africa might mean a quiet week while Americans are on heightened alert, but it doesn’t lessen the overall threat from those meaning to do the United States harm, said Scott Stewart, vice president of analysis at Stratfor.

The State Department has decided to keep 19 U.S. embassies closed through Saturday — many of which would have been closed until mid-week anyway for the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. The department made the decision after detecting an increase in communications about potential terrorist threats. Nine other embassies, including those in Baghdad, Kabul and Algiers, were allowed to reopen Monday as planned.

On Friday, the State Department also issued a warning to U.S. citizens traveling abroad about staying vigilant in light of the possibility of terrorist attacks. The travel alert extends through the end of August.

We asked Stewart about what the embassy closings and travel alert mean (answers edited for clarity and length):

How will closing the embassies for a week make them safer?

It’s not really about making the embassies safer, it’s about making the people safer and putting them out of harm’s way. A lot of the embassies we’re talking about are pretty hardened and fortified facilities, like in Sana’a, Yemen and Tunis, Tunisia. But people are vulnerable coming in and out of them. And if you’re open with visa applicants coming in, you run the risk from them as well.

Why are some staying open, like Kabul, Baghdad and Algiers?

Probably because the country team in those places made the determination that the threat didn’t apply to them. And all three of those places are fairly secure facilities.

Who should travelers contact if they run into trouble while the embassies are closed?

What you’ll do is call the after-hours numbers for the embassies. With technology the way it is today, the duty officers have cell phones, so whether there’s an operator or the Marines at post one (the main security command post usually at the primary entrance), they can respond.

What happens to the work load of those embassies, for example, people applying for visas?

In many countries, it’s by appointment, so they will have to wait and have those meetings rescheduled. Normally, those lines are pretty long anyway, so it’s going to cause an inconvenience for most people.

Will closing the embassies save the U.S. government any money, like a furlough?

No, the employees will still be paid. The good thing is they’re not totally closing down the embassies. If they were totally closing them down and removing the people from the country, it would be expensive. You’d need to destroy all the classified information, remove the people, and when they came back, conduct security measures like sweeping for bombs.

Have any other Western countries followed suit and closed their embassies?

The British and French embassies are closed in Sana’a, Yemen.

What’s notable about the travel warning?

What’s interesting is the potential threat to aviation. I’m not sure if the travel alert was based on separate intelligence, or there could be tangential intelligence. But it makes sense with past threats from Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; they’re still very focused on aviation.

What’s your take on the possibility of bomb implants?

What I’m concerned about more than implants is smuggling a bomb in body cavities, because you can remove it and place it in strategic parts of the aircraft. If it’s an implant, your body would absorb some of the blast. But placing it on the plane can cause more damage, and it can be combined with other components. It’s easier to spot an entire improvised explosive devise than if individual components, like the detonator, timing device and main explosive, are smuggled in separately.

The other thing that’s important to remember in relation to these threats — whether or not they’re credible — is that before Friday, there were undoubtedly people plotting attacks again embassies, and they’ll be doing so after the worldwide alert expires on Aug. 31. We shouldn’t panic, but we should take precautions.


Related Resources

We’ll have the latest on the terror alert on Monday’s PBS NewsHour. View all of our World coverage.