The State Department will keep 19 U.S. embassies closed for the next week "out of an abundance of caution", officials announced on Sunday. The department, in a statement, said that the extension wasn't "an indication of a new threat stream," indicating that it's a continuation of the U.S. response to an al-Qaeda-linked threat that led to the closure of 22 embassies on Sunday.
Here's State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki's statement:
Given that a number of our embassies and consulates were going to be closed in accordance with local custom and practice for the bulk of the week for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan, and out of an abundance of caution, we've decided to extend the closure of several embassies and consulates including a small number of additional posts.
This is 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 closures include four new diplomatic posts, along with 15 that were already closed on Sunday. A handful of embassies closed on Sunday will be allowed to reopen for business this week.
The public knows few details about the plan, and that's more or less how the administration will keep it for now. Here's what they've said so far: it was a serious threat linked to al-Qaeda in its "final stages", it was based in Yemen but might not have been set there, and it could be either a single attack or a coordinated series of attacks. CNN is also reporting that the U.S. knowledge of the plot comes from an intercepted message "among senior al Qaeda operatives in the last several days." There's also al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri's recent threat of revenge after a series of American drone strikes in Yemen. Yet, given the widespread, unprecedented embassy closures across much of the Middle East, the plan and its implications is already drawing a lot of commentary.
As The Atlantic Wire's Connor Simpson explained earlier today, the closures earned President Obama widespread praise from Congressional Republican hawks. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Benghazi investigation enthusiast, told CNN that "We’ve learned from Benghazi, thank God, and the administration’s doing this right." But his comments included just a little implicit criticism too: “After Benghazi, these al Qaeda types are really on steroids thinking we’re weaker and they’re stronger.” Rep. Peter King also touched on Benghazi in his Sunday show remarks.
But Benghazi isn't the only big associative talking point emerging on the attacks as the embassies remain stuttered. As indicated by CNN's Obama administration official-sourced report indicating that an intercepted message may have led the U.S. to the plot in the works, that second big talking point would be the controversial NSA data collection programs dominating the news all summer. Sen. Saxby Chambliss told NBC this morning that the U.S.'s knowledge of the plot came specifically from Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), a 2008 provision of the intelligence law that allows the U.S. to eavesdrop on electronic communication, as long it's taking place outside of the U.S. and involves no Americans. It's now better known as the legal framework for PRISM. "These programs are controversial, we understand that," Chambliss said, "But they are also very important… If we did not have these programs, then we simply would not be able to listen in on the bad guys."
The embassies closed this week are in: Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa, Tripoli, Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis. Meanwhile, those in Dhaka, Algiers, Nouakchott, Kabul, Herat, Mazar el Sharif, Baghdad, Basrah, and Erbil will reopen Monday for business.
Update: 9:50 p.m.: CNN is reporting that Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city, is on lockdown in relation to a threat on a "high-value" target. The report, citing unnamed Pakistani officials, continues:
Helicopters could be heard in the skies above Islamabad as Air Force and Navy commandos searched for suspected militants in the Margalla Hills that surround the city, the officials said.
Key military installations were under tight security.
Among the buildings being guarded are the headquarters for Pakistan's air force and navy, the officials said.