As you have probably heard by now, the U.S. has pulled its staff from embassies across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in response to a threat from Al Qaeda. Here’s what you need to know to understand what’s going on:
1. The embassy closures were triggered by an intercepted message from Al Qaeda.
A message picked up from senior Al Qaeda officials in Yemen indicated that the terrorist organization was planning some sort of attack. Whether the attack would be in Yemen itself is not certain, but the Muslim nation just south of Saudi Arabia is known to be a center for Al Qaeda activity. According to CNN’s sources, preparations for the attack have increased in recent days.
2. Several prison breaks launched by Al Qaeda and the end of Ramadan also contributed to the embassy closures.
The Obama Administration determined that additional caution was needed due to a spree of prison breaks by Al Qaeda. Prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, all in late July, freed an estimated 1,900 inmates. Additionally, local custom in many Muslim countries dictates that the embassies there be closed for Eid-al-Fitr, a three day celebration at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
3. In all, 26 embassies were closed, many of which centered around the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. closed 22 embassies on Sunday due to fears of an Al Qaeda attack. Fifteen of those are scheduled to remain closed through Saturday, August 10th, and four more embassies in Africa that were not initially closed were added to the list. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the extension “is not an indication of a new threat stream.” The greatest concentration of closures was along the Western side of the Persian Gulf, with three embassies closing in Saudi Arabia, two embassies closing in the United Arab Emirates, and one each in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Iraq.
4. The embassies closed are largely, but not exclusively in the Muslim world.
While most of the embassies closed are in countries with Muslims accounting for at least 90% of the population, there are also embassy closures in Rwanda, Burundi (both majority Catholic), Madagascar (split between traditional religions and Christian sects) and the tiny island of Mauritius (half Hindu). The rest of the embassy closures dot North Africa and the Middle East.
5. The Obama Administration has political reasons to be cautious.
Though the threat itself seems legitimate, the Obama Administration is pleased that the furor over the Benghazi attacks has died down, but a similar tragedy would be a tremendous political challenge for them to overcome, and could even hamper a potential run for President by Hillary Clinton. Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle have been making noise about how serious these threats are.
“High-level people from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack,” said U.S. Representative C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) of the House Intelligence Committee.
“This threat was so specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also certain dates were given,” Representative Peter King (R-NY) said.
Both parties want to be seen as the one who knows what’s going on when it comes to national security, because one never knows when an attack will dramatically change the national conversation.