The State Department on Friday issued a worldwide travel alert to U.S. citizens, broadly citing potential terrorist attacks in August in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly in the Arabian Peninsula or originating in that region.
Embassies across the Middle East and in other Muslim countries are preparing to shut down Sunday, and while U.S. officials have yet to publicly specify the nature of the security concern, one thing is certain: The State Department is reacting with caution. And it should.
"Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August," the travel warning said.
The response to this still-vague threat reflects a change in the way the department reacts to security concerns since Benghazi, where an assault on the U.S. consulate killed Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel last year. (CBS reports that the planned Sunday closures are related to the discovery of an al-Qaida plot).
After that high-profile attack on the anniversary of Sept. 11, State promised to rejuvenate security procedures, especially for high-threat posts overseas, and the department isn't taking chances now—not after a year-long media outcry, a flurry of hearings raising questions in Washington about State's competence to keep its people safe, and a tough independent review detailing the failure of intelligence officials and policymakers to fully understand the threat posed by Islamist militias in Libya.
"Benghazi has once again heightened interest and concern in the terrorist threat, to primarily the people who live and work overseas and the people who support them in Washington, and how to deal with it," said retired ambassador Thomas Pickering, who chaired the Accountability Review Board study on Benghazi.
Stevens was the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979. "But the fact is that people tend to get in a rut when things go well," Pickering told National Journal. "And we found in our reexamination of Benghazi that people got comfortable with procedures that were clearly less than adequate when you look at what the threat was."
Sunday's closures are a "precautionary" measure, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "The department has been apprised of information that, out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installations, indicates we should take these precautionary steps."
According to CBS, at least 17 embassies will close for the day—those in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. The step is notable in the wake of the Accountability Review Board report that faulted State for failing to issue worldwide caution cables to diplomatic posts related to the 9/11 anniversary last year, among other "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels."