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Lawmakers say terror threats most serious in years

Obama extends length embassies will be shuttered

An armored personnel vehicle guarded the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, on Sunday.
An armored personnel vehicle guarded the US Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, on Sunday.HASAN JAMALI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — Rattled lawmakers in both parties applauded President Obama's decision to shut 22 US diplomatic posts across the Middle East and North Africa this weekend, calling the threat of a fresh terrorist attack credible, specific, and the most alarming in years.

The State Department extended through Saturday the closure of 19 embassies, consulates, and smaller posts ''out of an abundance of caution,'' spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Sunday. Several other posts, including embassies in Kabul and Baghdad, will reopen Monday.

Diplomatic posts will remain closed in Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, among other countries.

Psaki said the action was not taken because new threats were detected but ''merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees, including local employees, and visitors to our facilities.''

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Intensified security Sunday included Bangladeshi policemen guarding the US Embassy in Dhaka.
Intensified security Sunday included Bangladeshi policemen guarding the US Embassy in Dhaka.Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

Lawmakers who had received intelligence briefings joined a parade of security experts and administration officials in warning Sunday of the seriousness of the threat, which emanates from a particularly dangerous and active Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen.

Neither the location nor the target of a potential attack is known, ''but the intent seems clear,'' General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on ABC's ''This Week.'' ''The intent is to attack Western, not just US, interests,'' he said.

The Obama administration ordered the posts closed and issued a global travel warning to Americans on Friday, after US intelligence agencies picked up communications among known terrorists discussing ''certain dates'' and being ''specific as to how enormous it was going to be,'' Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, said on the same program. King serves on the House intelligence and homeland security committees.

Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, compared the intercepted ''chatter'' to data picked up before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

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''This is the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years,'' Chambliss said on NBC's ''Meet the Press.''

Pressed for details, the senator added: ''What we have heard is some specifics on what's intended to be done and some individuals who are making plans, such as we saw before 9/11. Whether they are going to be suicide vests that are used, or whether they're planning on vehicle-borne bombs being carried into an area, we don't know.''

Yemeni soldiers searched a car on a street leading to the US and British embassies as authorities tightened security measures.
Yemeni soldiers searched a car on a street leading to the US and British embassies as authorities tightened security measures.Yahya Arhab/EPA

Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, echoed that view, saying, ''The administration's call to close these embassies ... was actually a very smart call.'' That's particularly true, he said, in light of what Republicans view as the administration's failure to respond to threats last year to the US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.

''I'm glad to see that in this case they're taking this very seriously,'' McCaul said on CBS's ''Face the Nation.''

Soldiers closed roads, erected extra blast walls, and increased patrols Sunday near some of the affected embassies and consulates, according to the Associated Press.

In Washington, analysts at the CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center, and other agencies continued to pore over signals, intercepts and other data, searching for clues.

''The intelligence community continues to look for additional information to provide better insight and more specificity with regard to the existing threat,'' a senior US intelligence official said.

The State Department has told Americans abroad to take extra precautions throughout the month, warning that terrorists have attacked subways, railways, planes, boats, ''and other tourist infrastructure.''

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On Saturday, Interpol, the France-based international police agency, issued a global security alert, saying it suspects Al Qaeda involvement in several recent prison breaks — including in Iraq, Libya, and Pakistan — ''which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals.''

Interpol noted that the heightened security fears coincide with the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim holiday that Chambliss said ''is always an interesting time for terrorists.''

This week is also the anniversary of the simultaneous 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. And the Sept. 11 anniversary is just a few weeks away.