The U.S. State Department said it will reopen on Sunday 18 diplomatic missions across the Middle East and Africa that were closed over the past week amid a worldwide terrorist threat from al-Qaida and its affiliates.
The United States will keep closed its diplomatic missions in Sana’a, Yemen, and Lahore, Pakistan, as President Barack Obama declared Friday that al-Qaida was a continuing threat to U.S. and world security.
Pakistan’s neighbour India also warned of a terrorist threat, placing New Delhi on high alert after intelligence officials warned of a possible terrorist attack in the capital.
The national Intelligence Bureau issued the warning in a letter to local police about threats ahead of independence day on August 15, senior New Delhi police officer SN Srivastava told the IANS news agency.
The U.S. consulate in Lahore was evacuated Friday due to a local threat that was not related to the closure of the other U.S. embassies and consulates, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.
The U.S. was moving non-essential diplomatic staff out of the Lahore office, and the U.S. State Department warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Pakistan.
“It is very much a local phenomenon,” said a U.S. embassy official in the capital Islamabad who did not want to be named.
A Pakistani official in Lahore told dpa that there was a “very specific, very grave” threat of an attack on the consulate.
“Our intelligence says it is going to happen around Eid (the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan),” said the official.
A police official in Lahore said there was an intelligence warning that a group of Punjabi Taliban, a militant faction linked to al-Qaida, planned to attack the consulate or its staff members.
Taliban commander Ameer Hamza was already in the city to lead the attack, said the official, who requested anonymity.
In Washington, Obama said the mission closings this week showed that al-Qaida has “metastasized.”
Obama dismissed a suggestion that there was a conflict between his declaration in May that al-Qaida had been decimated and the actions this past week amid a worldwide U.S. terrorist alert.
While terrorists are “less likely” to carry out “spectacular attacks” like that of 9/11, they have the capacity to “go after our embassies ... our businesses ... to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak.”
Obama seems determined to make sure he doesn't have another Benghazi-like attack.
Criticized by Republicans in Congress for its handling of last year's attack, his administration is responding with extra caution now that intelligence suggests a possible al-Qaida strike is in the works.
Even as the threat may be subsiding, U.S. officials say they are taking no risks less than a year after militants killed four Americans in the eastern Libyan city and with Republicans poised to pounce on any misstep.
"We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism," said Obama. "What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partners so that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that it posed on 9/11."
U.S. officials familiar with internal discussions acknowledged that last year's deadly attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi was playing a role in the decision-making. They said the White House, in particular, was insisting on handling the situation with extra caution, and only reopening embassies and consulates to the public when no meaningful threat persisted. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the deliberations.
Extended closures have consequences for U.S. diplomacy. It means would-be tourists and those traveling on business have to wait for visas, pickpocketed Americans can't get new passports and fewer personnel are at work promoting human rights, facilitating trade deals or coordinating with foreign governments on issues vital to U.S. security and economic growth. It also takes a toll on the U.S. image in countries with anti-American sentiment already.
The shutdown order for diplomatic facilities from northwest Africa to Bangladesh stands in sharp contrast to the approach the administration favored last September under different circumstances.
The current danger across much of North Africa and the Middle East concerns a potential al-Qaida attack stemming from lawless Yemen, while the Pakistan closures relate to a flurry of deadly militant attacks there. The threat a year ago was more amorphous. and even less predictable, focusing primarily on a flood of protests from West Africa to the Philippines over an amateur, anti-Islam film made by an Egyptian living in the United States.
At the time the administration was hesitant to close its embassies and consulates. Even after the September 11 Benghazi assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, and as demonstrators besieged U.S. posts across the region, Washington tried to keep its offices in most places open for business.
When the U.S. took action, it was narrower in scope and in geography.
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