By Barbara Starr, Jill Dougherty and Dana Bash, with reporting from Elise Labott, Evan Perez and Gloria Borger
U.S. intelligence has been tracking a growing threat against American and Western targets from al Qaeda’s affiliate organization in Yemen for the last several weeks.
But in recent days, there has been additional intelligence about a potential attack in Yemen, as well as threats against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa, leading to the Obama administration’s decision to shut down U.S. embassies and warn publicly of the threat, U.S. officials tell CNN.
Based on the intelligence, officials say, there is particular concern about the U.S. Embassy in Yemen between Saturday and Tuesday. Sunday, one of the holiest days in Islam, marks the end of Ramadan, and officials say they are concerned about attacks on that day.
The threat against the U.S. Embassy in Yemen was a primary concern, but it was ambiguous and could indicate threats against other U.S. and other Western targets in the Mideast and North Africa, another U.S. official told CNN.
The officials say the threat is linked to al Qaeda, rather than emanating directly from al Qaeda’s traditional stronghold in Pakistan.
“This is a higher-than-normal threat stream,” one official told CNN. Officials declined to say whether the information came from telephone intercepts, website postings or agents on the ground. “But it all leads us to believe something could happen in the near future,” the official said.
A senior U.S. official said there was “more than the usual chatter” about potential terror threats.
Separately a second official acknowledged there are differences within the administration about what the intelligence shows about the credibility and specificity of the threats and the potential timing of any attacks. But, as a third official said, “How often do you see so many embassies shut down? That tells you something about how serious it is.”
Vice President Joe Biden, along senior State Department officials in Washington, briefed congressional leadership and key committee chairs and ranking members about the new threat, a source who attended the meeting said. The briefing, earlier this week, was scheduled to discuss embassy security after the Benghazi attack, but included a discussion on this new concern.
This source said there was a lot of concern about increased chatter and about embassies being a potential target, though Biden did not mention in the briefing that the embassies would be closed.
Another source with knowledge of the government concerns and the meeting with the vice president said this is not something in the margins.
A U.S. law enforcement official says the threat information is "nonspecific and not corroborated," but it was important enough that U.S. national security officials issued an alert. Some of the reaction by the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that helped issue the alert can be explained by the Benghazi attack, another official said. Before that attack, this type of information may or may not have resulted in such an alert. But certainly, in light of the Benghazi attack, the alert was issued out of "abundance of caution,” the official said.
State Department officials insist the wording of the worldwide caution issued Friday is not "boilerplate." They point to the first line, which is specific: "The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula." The State Department does use some of the same language in alerts and warnings, but that is for consistency's sake.
State Department officials say they are taking this threat "very seriously." They issue worldwide cautions periodically, but this one is specific and applies to a large number of embassies. One official could not remember when the last time as many embassies were ordered closed. There have been previous major warnings, and the official recalled the one for Europe in 2010.
The embassies and consulates affected will be closed to the public. One reason is to avoid having long visa lines outside, which could turn into a target for attacks. Even when the embassies are closed, however, there are personnel working inside, and they can provide emergency services such as emergency passports.
The State Department has a 24-hour operations center that monitors threats all the time.