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U.S. extends embassy closures after intercepted al Qaeda message

Barbara Starr. Chris Lawrence and Holly Yan | 8/5/2013, 6:41 a.m.
A global travel alert issued Friday by the State Department said al Qaeda may launch attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond in coming weeks, and the U.S. government prepared to close embassies and consulates in the region Sunday as a precaution. 21 embassies and consulates are expected to close. CNN

What started as an unprecedented move to close almost two dozen diplomatic posts for a day has broadened to week-long closures for most of them as the United States mulls the threat of a possible attack.

A trio of factors prompted officials to extend most of its embassy and consulate closures until Saturday: an intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives, the end of Ramadan, and concerns over several major prison breaks in the region.

Originally, officials decided to close 22 embassies and consulates this past Sunday -- a day when they would normally be open for business.

But Sunday afternoon, the State Department extended embassy and consulate closures in 15 of the locations through Saturday, and added four other posts -- all in Africa -- to the list. This brings the total to 19.

"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 State Department said.

The statement, however, does not address why then it added four additional posts.

The closures stretch across a swath of Africa and the Middle East -- as far south as Madagascar and as far east as Oman. A U.S. global travel alert is also in place.

The al Qaeda message

An intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives in the last several days raised concerns that led to the closings of embassies and consulates Sunday, CNN has learned.

CNN has agreed to a request from an Obama administration official not to publish or broadcast additional details because of the sensitivity of the information.

One area of particular concern is Yemen, where the government is "on high alert against possible attacks in the days to come," said a senior U.S. security official.

Three sources said the United States has information that members of the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are in the final stages of planning for an unspecified attack.

One of the sources said such preparations appeared to have increased in recent days.

Prison breaks

Another factor that contributed to the closures is several major prison breaks in the region.

Over the weekend, Interpol warned that al Qaeda has been tied to the prison breaks that led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals.

-- On July 23, an al Qaeda group claimed responsibility for attacks on two Iraqi prisons that a lawmaker said freed more than 500 inmates, including some senior members of the group.

-- On July 26, about 1,200 inmates spilled out of a prison in Benghazi, Libya.

-- And on July 30, Taliban gunmen wearing police uniforms attacked the largest jail in a northern Pakistani province, allowing about 200 inmates to escape, authorities said.

End of Ramadan

A third factor prompting the closure is the end of Ramadan. Depending on when a new crescent moon is seen, the Muslim holy month could end Wednesday or Thursday.

Ramadan's end is celebrated with the Eid-al-Fitr festivities -- a three-day holiday in most Muslim countries.