All but two embassies and consulates closed across the Middle East, Asia and Africa over the last week will reopen on Sunday as U.S. intelligence agencies continued to assess the terrorist threat levels in those areas, the State Department announced.
The U.S. will continue to keep an embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, closed because of an ongoing threat of a terrorist attack by al Qaeda, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Likewise, the U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, which the administration shuttered Friday in response to a “separate credible threat,” will remained closed, she said.
“We will continue to evaluate the threats to Sanaa and Lahore and make subsequent decisions about the re-opening of those facilities based on that information,” Psaki said. “We will also continue to evaluate information about these and all of our posts and to take appropriate steps to best protest the safety of our personnel, American citizens traveling overseas, and visitors to our facilities.”
The State Department closed the facilities last Sunday and kept them shuttered throughout the week out of an abundance of caution as the Muslim holy holiday Ramadan ended, several administration officials said.
The U.S. government also told world travelers to be on high alert for suspicious activity for the entire month of August. That warning is still in effect.
The decision to keep the 19 embassies closed this week was not an indication of a new threat stream, “merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees including local employees and visitors to our facilities,” the State Department said.
The Yemeni government on Wednesday said it had thwarted plans by al Qaeda to attack a strategic southern port’s oil and gas facilities and to kill or kidnap foreigners working at the sites.
The U.S. government has been on the offensive in Yemen. On Thursday, three U.S. drone strikes killed a total of 12 suspected al Qaeda militants, bringing to eight the number of U.S. attacks in Yemen in less than two weeks.
While the State Department did not offer details about the threat in Lahore, Pakistan, the original threat that prompted a record number of embassy closures originated with al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan and Yemen.
U.S. officials intercepted terrorist “chatter” suggesting terrorist attacks were being hatched between the head of the global al Qaeda network, Ayman Zawahiri, who is believed to be in Pakistan, and its Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In a press conference Friday, President Obama defended his many assertions – on the campaign trail and off – that al Qaeda is “on the run” and “on its heels” even in the face of a terrorist threat from the group that forced a mass shutdown of embassies around the Muslim world.
“Core al Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated, but what I also said was that al-Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers,” the president told reporters at a press conference Thursday in the White House’s East Room.
He also continued to maintain that al Qaeda is less likely to be able to carry out “spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11.”
Still, he said al Qaeda has the capacity to target U.S. embassies and businesses abroad and to be “destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak.”
“And that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now,” he added.
Following the 2011 death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, enemy No. 1 for the U.S. for more than a decade, Obama said the core of al Qaeda appeared on the ropes and “on the path to defeat.”
“Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us,” he said in May during a speech at the National Defense University that called for a broad rethink of the U.S. war on terrorism, including the use of drones strikes in countries like Pakistan and Yemen.
The decision to close the embassy in Lahore, Pakistan, however, undermines the Obama administration’s claim that it has decimated the “core” of al Qaeda and has the group “on the run.” Pakistan is home to al Qaeda’s top leaders, one of whom directed the terrorist threat that caused the closures of a record number of embassies.
National security experts have described al Qaeda as having evolved into a far more sophisticated opponent after surviving more than a decade of drone attacks and counter-terrorist operations.
Seth Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, testified before Congress last month that “there has been a net expansion in the number and geographic score of al Qaeda’s affiliates and allies over the past decade, indicating that al Qaeda and its brand are far from defeated.”