US braces for 9/11 anniversary

US braces for 9/11 anniversary
© Getty Images

The United States is bracing for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, with embassies around the world likely to bolster security against the possibility of a strike from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other extremist groups.

Tensions are running high due to what officials have described as alarming intelligence in recent months about attempts by radical groups, some of which are affiliates of al Qaeda, to launch attacks against the United Sates.

Officials are also mindful of the security failure on Sept. 11, 2012, when militants in Benghazi, Libya stormed a diplomatic outpost and killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The Obama administration was tight-lipped about what security preparations might be underway.

“We are constantly reevaluating our security posture, anywhere in the world,” State Department spokesman Noel Clay told The Hill. “But for operational security reasons I can’t get into specifics with you.”

The Pentagon declined to comment about security preparations.

But just because the administration has not released specific plans or details yet, doesn’t mean planning isn’t “going on behind the surface,” said Bruce Reidel, the director of The Intelligence Project at The Brookings Institution.

Reidel said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Sept. 11 anniversary was partly behind the State Department’s decision in July to evacuate the U.S. embassy in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

Indeed, evacuations and embassy closures have become one the most visible steps taken by the U.S. every September.

Last year, the administration closed more than a dozen embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa, with many of them remaining shuttered for a week or more.

At the time, Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelShould Mike Pompeo be confirmed? Intel chief: Federal debt poses 'dire threat' to national security Hagel: Trump is 'an embarrassment' MORE said the United States had military forces “operating at a high state of readiness” around the globe.

Sensitivity about this year’s anniversary has increased due to the rise of ISIS, which over the summer rapidly took hold of territory in Syria and Iraq.

President Obama this week ordered 350 additional troops to Baghdad to protect the U.S. embassy against ISIS fighters, bringing the level of security there to about 820 soldiers.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said ISIS and other radical Islamic groups “take anniversaries very seriously in terms of choosing when to attack in the United States.”

“I think we need to be on a high state of alert,” McCaul said on CNN.

Riedel, who served in the CIA for 30 years, said the Sept. 11 anniversary is widely recognized by the American counterterrorism community as a “potential spike point” for attacks on U.S. assets around the world.

He said the response to that “spike point” could be elevated this year because ISIS has “reached a level of capability we really have to worry about.”

The United Kingdom recently raised its domestic terror alert level from “substantial” to “severe” in the run-up to the anniversary. Prime Minster David Cameron last week said the country was facing a "greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before."

In response to the U.K.’s move, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said American officials were “unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. homeland” from ISIS, though he said the group’s supporters “have demonstrated the intent and capability to target American citizens overseas.”

Johnson said the U.S. has taken “a number of steps” to enhance airport security and is working with allies to track the flow of people in out of Syria, a hotbed of ISIS activity.

“We are contemplating additional security measures concerning foreign fighters. Some of the security measures will be visible to the public and some understandably will be unseen,” Johnson said.  

Administration officials over the summer sounded increasingly worried about potential terrorist threats against the United States, particularly from groups that appear to be devising ways to evade airport security.

Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEric Holder headed to New Hampshire for high-profile event Holder: 'Our democracy is under attack' McAuliffe touts his record as governor as he seeks to boost Dems MORE in July said the administration had “extreme” concern about intelligence suggesting bomb-makers from Yemen were working with terrorists in Syria to create undetectable explosives.

“In some ways, it's more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general,” Holder said on ABC’s “This Week.”

After Holder’s remarks, the Homeland Security Department directed the Transportation Security Administration to employ "enhanced security measures" at overseas airports where planes fly directly to the U.S.

Reidel said that since ISIS has inspired potentially thousands of Europeans to travel to the Middle East and rally to its cause, it’s likely that “all of our posts in Europe are being asked to reevaluate their security situations.”

He pointed to an incident in May where a man who spent over a year in Syria opened fire at a Jewish museum in Belgium, killing four people. The gunman was later arrested in France.

“You don’t have to actually get into the embassy to create a violent incident,” Reidel said.