WASHINGTON, D.C.: The US State Department on Tuesday ordered all non-essential staff out of Yemen and told Americans to leave the country “immediately” over terrorism concerns.
The latest warning comes after the closure of some two dozen US missions across the Middle East and Africa and reports of intercepted messages from al-Qaeda’s top leader ordering its Yemen franchise to carry out an attack.
“The US Department of State warns US citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest,” it said in a statement.
“The Department urges US citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those US citizens currently living in Yemen to depart immediately.”
It said it had “ordered the departure of non-emergency US government personnel from Yemen due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks.”
The statement said that the “threat level in Yemen is extremely high” because of the potential for both terrorist attacks and civil unrest.
“Terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP], continue to be active throughout Yemen,” it said.
“The US government remains highly concerned about possible attacks on US citizens [whether visiting or residing in Yemen], and US facilities, businesses, and perceived US and Western interests.”
AQAP is believed to be one of the most sophisticated groups spawned by the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, and has attempted a number of attacks against the United States in recent years.
The State Department warning came hours after a US drone strike killed four suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. It was not immediately clear if the two developments were linked.
US officials rarely discuss the covert drone program in Yemen, and could not immediately be reached for comment.
US media have reported that the overseas missions were closed after intelligence agents intercepted messages from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi calling for an attack as early as Sunday.
Meanwhile, media reports said iIntercepts between al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the leader of the group’s Yemen affiliate sparked the closure of US missions overseas and a global travel alert.
The New York Times said in its online edition that the electronic communications last week revealed that Zawahiri had ordered Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday.
CNN meanwhile reported that Zawahiri told Wuhayshi to “do something,” causing officials in both Washington and Yemen to fear an attack was imminent.
As a result, roughly two dozen US diplomatic posts were shuttered across the Middle East Sunday, and the State Department, insisting it was acting “out of an abundance of caution,” said 19 would remain shut through Saturday.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is seen as the terror network’s most capable franchise following the decimation of its core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years.
The Yemen-based group has attempted a number of attacks on US soil, including a bid to bring down a passenger plane in 2009 by a man wearing explosives in his underwear and a failed plot to send bombs concealed in printers.
The United States in turn has launched scores of drone strikes in Yemen, where the militant group thrives in vast, lawless areas largely outside of the government’s control.
A drone strike in Yemen early Tuesday struck a vehicle, killing four suspected al-Qaeda militants “in a ball of fire,” a tribal source told Agence France-Presse, adding that all four men were Yemeni.
It was not immediately clear if the strike was linked to the global alert. US officials rarely speak about the drone program.
Several US allies, including Britain, France, Germany and Norway have also announced closures of some of their missions in the region.
The US closure list includes 15 embassies or consulates that were shut on Sunday—the 15th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on US embassies in East Africa—as well as four additional posts.
Lawmakers in Washington described the threat level as very serious, with some invoking the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, dubbed the intelligence “probably one of the most specific and credible threats I’ve seen, perhaps, since 9/11.”
Saxby Chambliss, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the level of chatter among alleged terrorists was “very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11.”
ABC News cited an unnamed US official as saying there was concern al-Qaeda might deploy suicide attackers with surgically implanted bombs to evade security.
Late last week, the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning US citizens of possible attacks on “public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.”
On Saturday, the global police agency Interpol issued a security alert over hundreds of militants freed in jailbreaks.
Interpol said it suspected al-Qaeda was involved in the mass breakouts in nine countries, notably Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.