By Jonathan Easley - 08/04/13 12:39 PM EDT
The White House said top administration officials gathered late Saturday over a terror threat that provoked the State Department to close more than 20 diplomatic posts and issue a worldwide travel alert.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice chaired a meeting with 12 administration officials including the secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security and the directors of the FBI, CIA and NSA, according to a White House statement.
On Friday, a White House official said that Obama had instructed his national security team to take every appropriate step to protect Americans after warnings from foreign officials, movement in the al Qaeda ranks, and new intelligence reports suggested a specific terrorist threat to U.S. and Western targets.
“The President is being updated on a potential threat occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula,” the official said. “The President has directed his National Security Team to take all appropriate steps to protect the American people and will continue to be updated on a regular basis.”
Early Sunday, CNN reported that U.S. military forces, mainly combat-equipped Marines, were on heightened alert in southern Spain and Italy and in the Red Sea.
The network one day earlier reported that “fresh intelligence” and peaking “chatter” among al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tipped off U.S. officials that the terrorist organization was in the final stages of planning attacks against a handful of U.S. and Western targets across the Middle East and Northern Africa.
The State Department’s travel alert said the threat was focused particularly in the Middle East and North Africa and was “possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.” Yemen has become a central focus of the warnings.
On Friday, CNN reported that Yemeni officials visiting Washington this week alerted U.S. officials to intelligence they’d obtained about the potential for a planned al Qaeda attack in the country in the coming days.
Al Qaeda's Yemeni cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is considered one of the group’s most dangerous and well-funded factions in the world. The Yemeni group was responsible for three attempted airline bombings targeting the United States over the past several years.
Those warnings came amid reports that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al Qaeda leader who replaced Osama bin Laden, has appointed a new official to manage the outfit’s terror network.
In addition, new protests erupted in Egypt, where the elected Muslim Brotherhood government was recently overthrown. Some media outlets are reporting that al-Zawahiri has issued two speeches this week criticizing U.S. policy in Egypt and urging Muslims in the region to unite.
Recent prison breaks also prompted INTERPOL to issue a global security alert. Prison escapes in countries including Iraq, Libya and Pakistan freed hundreds of terrorists and criminals.
The international police organization on Saturday said it suspects al Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts and advised increased vigilance.
The security precautions by the Obama administration underscore the impact of last year's deadly strike on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. The last time State Department officials issued such forceful warnings of a terrorist strike was prior to the Benghazi assault, which fell on the 11-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Republicans have criticized the administration for not being prepared for the strike that killed four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed to the Benghazi attack as a reason for the State Department's alert.
"It [is] just like before 9/11, the attack on Benghazi," Royce said of the most recent State Department warnings. "At that point in time, remember, someone forgot to circle the calendar that it was 9/11. And we might want to preposition assets or have contingency plans in place.”
"This time ... steps are being taken. And that's to protect our personnel," he said.
Friday's precautions were issued on the 25th day of Ramadan, as the Muslim holy month comes to a close. The holy holiday is traditionally accompanied by a lull in attacks by Islamic extremist groups against U.S. and Western allies, but the time off also gives groups like al Qaeda the opportunity to build up their ranks and stockpile weapons.
CNN also pointed out that Sunday is the 27th day of Ramadan and known as the “Night of Power,” when the Prophet Mohammed came into contact with the first verses of the Koran. According to the network's national security analyst, Peter Bergen the day is seen by potential Islamic martyrs “as a particularly auspicious day to die.”
--This report was originally published on Saturday at 10:37 a.m. and was last updated on Sunday at 8:39 p.m.