UPDATED — Global travel warning issued amid terrorism fears

Copyright 2013 New York Times News Service

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Interpol asks nations to help track terror suspects freed in prison breaks
Copyright 2013 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Interpol issued a global alert on Saturday asking member countries to help track hundreds of terrorism suspects who escaped in a wave of prison breaks over the past month — including in Iraq, Pakistan and Libya — and requesting assistance in determining whether any of the operations “are coordinated or linked.”

The alert from Interpol, the global police organization, came two days after the State Department ordered nearly two dozen diplomatic facilities closed in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia based on intelligence that an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Yemen might be plotting attacks in the coming days.

On Saturday, several European governments said they, too, were temporarily closing their outposts in Yemen.

It was unclear how the Interpol and State Department alerts might be connected, although the Interpol notice did make reference to the State Department closings and stated Interpol would be “prioritizing all information and intelligence in relation to the breakouts or terrorist plots.”

American and foreign officials believe that Al Qaeda's Iraq affiliate orchestrated coordinated attacks in late July that freed hundreds of inmates from two prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib.

The attackers used mortars to pin down Iraqi forces, employed suicide bombers to punch holes in Iraqi defenses and then sent an assault force to free the inmates, Western officials said at the time.

A few days later, more than 1,000 prisoners escaped under murky circumstances at a prison near Benghazi, Libya.

The country's prime minister blamed local residents for carrying out the jailbreak, an accusation that security officials in Benghazi disputed.

In a separate attack at a century-old prison at Dera Ismail Khan, just outside Pakistan's tribal belt, as many as 150 fighters blew holes in the perimeter wall and stormed the prison compound.

The local authorities said that some of the attackers had been disguised as police officers, and that they had used megaphones to call out the names of specific prisoners and to chant “God is great” and “Long live the Taliban.”

Nearly 250 inmates were freed during the attack.

The Interpol alert added to a climate of heightened concern set off Thursday when State Department officials spoke of possible terror plots in the works against Western facilities overseas.

The next day, the department issued a global travel alert for American citizens that warned of the potential for terror attacks by operatives of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups beginning Sunday through the end of August.

American officials said the information was based on electronic intercepts of senior Qaeda operatives discussing terror plots.

In an interview with the ABC News program “This Week” to be broadcast on Sunday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, said the intelligence about the possible plots was “more specific” than in the past.

“There's a significant threat stream, and we're reacting to it,” he said.

Obama administration officials have spoken optimistically in recent months about a generally diminished terror threat, and during a speech in May, President Obama said Al Qaeda and its affiliate groups had been eviscerated by American counterterrorism operation.

Still, the administration continues to wage an aggressive drone war in Pakistan and Yemen, and monitoring groups said there had been three American strikes in Yemen in the past week.

France, Germany and Britain on Saturday announced the temporary closings of their embassies in Sana, Yemen, citing fears of unspecified attacks on their interests there.

A representative of the British Foreign Office called the closing a “precautionary measure,” the BBC reported.

In France, President François Hollande spoke of specific threats but gave no additional details.

“I've decided to close the embassy of France in Yemen because, now, we've had elements that allowed us to think that these threats were extremely serious,”

Hollande told reporters on Saturday. He did not specify the source or nature of the information concerning potential attacks.

The closing is expected to last “several days,” Hollande said, adding that French officials and citizens should be particularly “vigilant” in coming weeks if traveling in countries where terror groups are known to operate.

The Interpol alert on Saturday cited coming anniversaries of terror attacks, including this week's 15th anniversary of the American Embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people and wounded 4,000 others.

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.”

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.

Last modified: August 03. 2013 6:20PM
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