WASHINGTON—The U.S. issued a world-wide terrorism alert 
due to intelligence indicating al Qaeda and its affiliates are plotting attacks against U.S. interests globally, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. officials said.

U.S. intelligence agencies have picked up heightened “chatter” between suspected al Qaeda operatives in recent weeks, suggesting they’re pursuing plots against Americans, Obama administration officials said.

The travel alert cited threats “possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula,” which suggested that the threat is from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based terrorist organization which includes Saudi nationals among its leaders and has overseen two major plots against the U.S. in recent years.

“Current information suggests that al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August,” the State Department said in a statement.

Al Qaeda Activity Around the World

Review past al Qaeda activities.

It warned that tourism resorts, bus and rail systems and airlines could be particular targets.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has successfully honed bombing technology that has previously threatened U.S.-bound air travel on passenger and cargo planes, making the organization one of the prime threats facing America and Yemen, and one of the most frequently targeted sites of the U.S. drone campaign.

The U.S. launched three strikes within the past week in remote areas of Yemen where AQAP operatives were thought to be hiding. It marks the first time in more than a month that America has launched such attacks there. Yemeni media reported at least five alleged members of al Qaeda were killed in strikes.

It is not known whether the uptick in American strikes is related to the current travel threat.

AQAP announced earlier this summer that one of their top leaders, considered a mastermind of the bombing technology, had died as a result of injuries sustained in a U.S. missile strike in Yemen last year. However, U.S. and regional intelligence officials believe that other members of AQAP have this bombing knowledge.

Friday’s alert was posted a day after the State Department ordered the closure this Sunday of dozens of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the broader Middle East, including missions in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq and Kuwait.

On Friday, the U.K, Foreign Office warned embassy staff in the Middle East to remain vigilant but said that its embassies will remain open. The Canadian government said it is monitoring developments in the Middle East and will take “appropriate” security measures as required. Foreign Minister spokesman John Baird declined to say whether Canada will follow the U.S. in closing its embassies in the region.

A U.S. administration official said elevated “chatter” between al Qaeda interests was enough to call for the closing of the diplomatic missions on Sunday, though the official described the threat as “midlevel.”

“We don’t do that too often,” the official said about closing American embassies.

U.S. President Barack Obama met with his Yemeni counterpart, President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi, at the White House Thursday to discuss joint counterterrorism programs against AQAP and other bilateral issues, according to U.S. and Yemeni officials. “They affirmed the importance of combating terrorism within the framework of the rule of law and of supporting Yemen’s efforts to build capable, effective, and professional security forces,” a Yemeni government official said about the meeting.

The chairman of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), said Friday that he was briefed that al Qaeda plots were emanating out of the broader Middle East, but didn’t specify the potential targets. Mr. Royce said he met with Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday at the White House to discuss the al Qaeda threat.

“”We’re going to take whatever steps necessary to protect our personnel overseas,” Mr. Royce said on CNN’s “New Day” news program on Friday. “When we do have an indication of a threat, we take that seriously.”

U.S. officials said al Qaeda in the past has focused on attacking public transportation systems, including trains in Madrid, Spain in 2004 and public buses in London, U.K. in 2005. These officials didn’t say whether the U.S. has specific intelligence indicating that such transportation systems were again targets.

The alert follows an uptick in threats against embassies in North Africa and the Middle East a few months ago. U.S. intelligence officials last May saw a spike in threats against U.S. missions in against its embassies in Libya, Yemen and Egypt, which were believed to involve bomb plots by Sunni extremists and perhaps al Qaeda-linked individuals.

“Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services,” the State Department said in its alert. “U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.”

The State Department has issued such alerts and warnings in the recent past, U.S. officials said.

Late last year, it released a similarly-worded warning stating that al Qaeda and its affiliated organizations could seek to strike U.S. interests on or about Sept. 11, 2012. In February of this year, the State Department issued a warning to Americans that “current information suggest that al Qaeda, and its affiliated organizations, continue to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions.”

Defense officials said there have been no shifts of assets in response to the embassy closures. Defense officials noted that in recent months the Marine Corps has built up quick reaction forces in the region, in large measure to respond to threats against embassies and other diplomatic outposts.

The Marines have been building up their Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, which are used to reinforce embassies.

The Marines have one FAST team in Rota, Spain and another in Bahrain. The Marines also have a new quick reaction force in Moron, Spain and Naval Air Station Sigonella in Italy that can respond to crisis with a few hours. The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is also in the Middle East and ready to respond if needed, officials said.

“We have assets that are always on alert,” said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman. “They are ready to respond.”

Source: JAY SOLOMON, SIOBHAN GORMAN, WSJ

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