Fears of Al Qaeda Affiliate’s Plot Behind U.S. Travel Alert

Fears of an unspecified al Qaeda attack are behind the U.S. travel warning, officials tell Daniel Klaidman.

The terror threat that’s prompted the closure of 21 embassies across the Middle East and a worldwide travel alert for Americans emanated from the United States’s most persistent and cunning enemy, the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, two senior intelligence officials tell The Daily Beast.

The sources describe the threat intel as credible but not specific, though they say it left little doubt that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was looking for opportunities to strike at U.S. interests in the region in the coming days or weeks. “This is more than just a rise in the chatter,” said a U.S. intelligence official. “There’s some specificity that we’re capturing, but not enough that gives us the granularity that we can say what the target is and exactly who is involved.”

One reason for the increased threat traffic could be that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is coming to an end on August 8. U.S. officials are unnerved that they have not been able to pinpoint a specific target.

AQAP has attempted attacks both in the United States and in Yemen. Once thought to have just local or regional ambitions, the terror organization began plotting attacks on the U.S. when Barack Obama took office. In 2009, a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, tried to bring down a commercial airliner over Detroit with explosives sewn into his underwear. The bomb was a dud. In 2010, AQAP’s master bombers developed an ink-cartridge bomb to blow up American cargo planes. The plot was foiled by a Saudi tipster.

During much of his first term, Obama considered AQAP the single gravest terrorist threat facing the country. He was particularly focused on AQAP’s head of external operations, the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. “I want Awlaki,” he told his military advisers at one White House meeting. “Don’t let up on him.” Obama got him in September 2011, when the charismatic preacher was taken out by a a CIA drone strike in Northern Yemen.

While AQAP has persistently sought to attack the U.S. homeland, it has also shown interest in attacking Americans in Yemen and elsewhere in the region. The U.S. embassy in Sana’a has been a repeated target and sources tell The Daily Beast that it could be this time as well. Indeed, the British Foreign Office announced today that it would close its embassy in Sana’a as well. The U.S. embassy was the target of a chilling plot in December 2009. U.S. intelligence learned that AQAP was in the late stages of a plan to blow up the embassy with a team of suicide bombers. The intelligence prompted the military’s Joint Special Operations Command to launch what at the time was one of its most ambitions operations in Yemen. A series of targeted killings in a camp in South Yemen took out a number of high-ranking AQAP operatives and disrupted the embassy plot. But one of the strikes also went awry, killing dozens of innocent civilians.

U.S. officials, leaving nothing to chance, are preparing for the possibility that AQAP, or perhaps other al Qaeda groups, could strike elsewhere in the Middle East or North Africa. Embassies have been closed across a large swath of Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the State Department’s travel bulletin warns Americans about potential terrorist attacks “particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.” The alert goes on to say that terrorists may strike at both “official or private interests.”

Lately, counterterrorism officials have been worried about al Qaeda attacking U.S. and other Western workers in the Middle East or North Africa. In January, al Qaeda in the Maghreb attacked the Amenas Gas Refinery in eastern Algeria, killing dozens of people, including Americans.