In a new documentary series on PBS, Bruce Feiler accompanies Americans on pilgrimages to six of the world's holiest sites.
Because of an unspecified threat from al-Qaida, the U.S. State Department today issued a travel warning for Americans in the Middle East.
Yesterday, State Department officials said an undisclosed number of U.S. embassies will close on Sunday as a “precautionary” measure.
CBS News is reporting a real al-Qaida plot “in the making and not just the normal chatter” among terrorist who want to attack U.S. targets.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
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HOBSON: But first, the government said today that Americans around the world should be on heightened alert. The State Department issued a worldwide warning for Americans through August 31 about, quote, the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa.
The news comes right after the State Department said it would close embassies this Sunday because of security concerns. Bloomberg News reporter Nicole Gaouette is with us on the line from Washington. And Nicole, just tell us what you can about the threat that has prompted this worldwide warning.
NICOLE GAOUETTE: Well, we're not being given very many specifics. There are lawmakers on the Hill who have been briefed on the intelligence that's prompting these closures, and everything they have to say makes it sound like it's quite serious and to be taken seriously. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Dutch Ruppersberger, who's from Maryland, told Bloomberg that security agencies, what he calls chatter or chitchat all the time.
But what they're hearing now got to another level. He said that they got very clean intelligence, that it's not just normal chitchat, but that there could be an attack on Americans or on our allies.
HOBSON: Well, what about the developments today? We woke up this morning to news that these embassies would be closed on Sunday, and then all of a sudden there's a worldwide alert for people traveling.
GAOUETTE: Yeah, and it's actually not just the U.S. The British Foreign Office has also announced that it will close at least one embassy on Sunday and Monday and withdraw staff and that other embassies in the Middle East, in North Africa and South Asia, are being kept open. But the staff there is being told to use extreme vigilance. That's a quote from the British Foreign Office statement.
The State Department today put out a list of the 21 embassies and consulates that they will be closing, and they've said it's just for August 4th, but that could be extended depending on what happens on Sunday.
HOBSON: Do we have any idea where the threats are coming from or this chatter that you're talking about?
GAOUETTE: Well, there was - in this worldwide alert that they put out today, they were - it was surprisingly specific. They're usually quite generally worded, but they said that they are worried about a threat from al-Qaida or its affiliates and that they are - they think that the threat could - is emanating from the Arabian Peninsula and that the attacks could occur there, though they didn't limit it.
They said that they could happen anywhere in the Mideast, North Africa, South Asia or even beyond.
HOBSON: Has the security of embassies been boosted since Benghazi, which was almost a year ago now, and there were a lot of questions about that?
GAOUETTE: Yeah, well, everyone agrees it has to be improved, and in the wake of that tragedy there were a couple of immediate improvements made. But the realities on the ground take a while and especially in this fiscal environment. So there haven't been a lot of very substantive changes yet. House Republicans have proposed some pretty draconian cuts to State Department funding in general. The one area they're not touching so much is embassy security.
HOBSON: And do we know, Nicole, if the embassies would definitely reopen by Monday or if it might take longer?
GAOUETTE: We don't. The State Department is definitely take a sort of wait and see attitude. One interesting thing to note is that all of these embassies are in Islamic countries, and August 3rd, August 4th, is a very significant day for Muslims. It's the - it's considered the holiest night of Ramadan, August 3rd, because it was the night that the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and it's called the Night of Power.
And maybe as part of the intelligence chatter that our security services are hearing is that it could be a significant day for al-Qaida or affiliates to make a strike against Western targets.
HOBSON: Let me just ask you quickly if there's any precedent for this. It's been a while since we've heard about, for example, the color-coded terror alerts going up higher.
GAOUETTE: That's right.
HOBSON: Yeah, so what's the precedent here?
GAOUETTE: Do you know, there's none that I know of. There may be journalists or diplomats with much longer memories who could refer to something, but even in the height of tensions in Egypt, when President - then-President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, they would close that one embassy, you know, one or two days. But I've not seen anything like this before.
HOBSON: Nicole Gaouette is U.S. foreign policy reporter for Bloomberg News, speaking with us from Washington. Nicole, thanks.
GAOUETTE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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