U.S. embassies in Muslim world reopen amid still-murky threats

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

Eighteen of the 19 U.S. embassies and consulates reopened Sunday after being shut down for a week across the Islamic world because of a terrorist threat.

Even as the diplomatic posts inched toward normal operations, and as Muslims celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan, questions lingered about how pressing the danger had been and whether the threat had yet passed.

The U.S. embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, the same nation from which a threat from an al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula earlier this month spurred the State Department to close its facilities, remained closed.

And the U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, initially among the consulates open after U.S. officials announced that an unusually high number would be closed, remained shuttered indefinitely. U.S. officials evacuated personnel there Friday after receiving “specific threats.”

The nature of those threats or who they aimed at remains unclear. A worldwide travel warning to Americans overseas remains in place through the end of August.

Meantime, the decision last week to close the embassies and consulates dashed assertions by the Obama administration just months earlier that the al Qaida threat was waning.

Indeed, the closures, coupled with a dearth of details about the threat, left many across the region wondering about the status of al Qaida and whether it is staging a comeback.

The United States has not closed a comparable number of embassies and consulates since the months following Sept. 11, 2001.

In Yemen, some government officials are dubious about the threat posed to U.S. facilities. A Yemeni official claimed earlier this week that the country had thwarted an al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula plot to take over cities and oil and gas installations in the eastern province of Hadramawt.

Yet other Yemeni government spokespeople, noting that the Islamist group maintains a foothold in the province, publicly pushed back against such claims. They said that the militant group lacks the intention or capability to launch such a plot.

A high-ranking Yemeni security official speaking on the condition of anonymity told McClatchy that the claims of a foiled plot had no basis in fact. That source bemusedly attributed media reports about imminent terror strikes to a single official’s comments, which he cast as a misguided attempt at shifting public opinion in the face of increasing and unpopular American drone strikes.

Indeed, Yemen has remained at a relative normal – except for increased security measures that sent spy planes over the skies of Sanaa and flurry of apparent drone strikes to points farther afield. The most recent drone attack killed at least two suspected militants in the southern province of Lahj Saturday evening.

U.S. officials suggested the threat on its facilities was timed to coincide with the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims refrain from eating from sunrise to sunset. The last 10 days of the month are particularly sacred to Muslims. They believe some time during this period the Prophet Mohammed received the first revelations from the angel Gabriel.

Throughout much of the Islamic world Sunday, Muslims continued to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan. While the religious period of celebration ended Saturday, many government buildings in Cairo and elsewhere remained closed until Monday.

In a statement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said officials were assessing when to reopen the facilities in Yemen and Pakistan. She offered no specifics about how that decision would be made.

“We will continue to evaluate the threats to Sanaa and Lahore and make subsequent decisions about the re-opening of those facilities based on that information,” Psaki said. “We will also continue to evaluate information about these and all of our posts and to take appropriate steps to best protect the safety of our personnel, American citizens traveling overseas, and visitors to our facilities.”

For diplomatic personnel serving in Pakistan, even in facilities that remain open, that means a different means of operating. Restrictions, for instance, have been placed on inter-city road travel. Diplomats are not allowed to drive personal vehicles anywhere outside Islamabad.

U.S. State Department personnel have been on heightened alert for nearly a year after suspected al Qaida affiliated groups stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and set it ablaze. That left four people dead, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, and created a firestorm of controversy over whether the Obama administration responded reasonably to threats to the facility.

While U.S. officials said they have suspects in the attack and have charged one Libyan man, no one has yet to be detained and charged with in an assault believed to involve about 70 people.

Youssef reported from Cairo, Baron from Sanaa and Hussain from Islamabad.

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