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Fearing August Terror Attacks, U.S. Takes Precautions Overseas

WASHINGTON, Aug 2 2013 (IPS) - U.S. authorities claim the month of August may be a dangerous one for U.S. citizens residing abroad, and they are apparently going to great lengths to reduce the risk.

Over the past two days, the U.S. Department of State, expressing a concern that Al-Qaeda affiliates may be planning a terror attack for this month, has taken a pair of drastic steps to reduce its citizens’ vulnerability to violence abroad.

A day after announcing the closure of several U.S. embassies and consulates, the department Friday issued a worldwide travel alert for all U.S. citizens. It specifically mentions the possibility of a terror attack this month.

“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.

“Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida 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 statement reads.

“This alert expires on August 31, 2013,” it states.

This warning comes only a day after State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters at a press briefing that the U.S., beginning Sunday, Aug. 4, would be closing down many of its diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.

“[T]he Department of State has instructed certain U.S. embassies and consulates to remain closed or to suspend operations on Sunday, August 4th. The Department has been apprised of information that, out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installations, indicates we should institute these precautionary steps,” Harf said.

Although it is typical in many countries for official facilities to be closed on Sundays, for the countries in question it is a business day and would normally see embassy buildings open.

At least 18 facilities are expected to be subject to closure. They include embassies and consulates in Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Turkey, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Mauritania, Bahrain, and Israel.

It is unclear how long the shutdown will last or whether it will be extended to embassies outside of these regions. The issuance of the worldwide travel alert Friday is evidence that the U.S. is concerned about threats to its citizens which are irrespective of region.

Lessons learned?

The memory of the attacks on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, which occurred last year, may factor into the precautions being taken this month.

On Sep. 11, 2012, U.S. government buildings were attacked in the Eastern Libyan city and multiple U.S. citizens were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The attack caused a scandal in the U.S., and many opponents of the administration of President Barack Obama have accused it of doing too little to prevent the tragedy.

The extreme steps to prevent Al-Qaeda-linked terrorism, however, seem to damage claims the U.S. government has made on numerous recent occasions – namely, that the group responsible for the attacks of Sep. 11, 2001 has been greatly weakened by the efforts of the U.S. war on terror.

Nevertheless, speaking at the same press conference in which she announced the shutdowns, Harf defended the U.S. tactic of using drone strikes against militants in Pakistan, claiming that the core groups there had been reduced to “a shadow of what they once were”.

“I think that it’s just a fact that we have eliminated a great deal of the threat coming from core Al-Qaeda,” the spokeswoman said Thursday, just after announcing the closures. She qualified that statement by saying some level of threat did remain, however.

The Obama administration has regularly justified its use of drone strikes in Pakistan by claiming their effectiveness in reducing the terror threat combined with the limited civilian casualties they allegedly involve.

After a secret document was uncovered last month, however, the claim that strikes involve an insubstantial number of civilian casualties no longer holds much water. The document, part of an internal assessment by the Pakistani government, recorded 147 civilian deaths out of a total of 746 which it listed as being killed by drone strikes.

Ninety-four of the civilians were children.

The drone strikes are now Pakistan’s “main bone of contention” with Washington, Bruce Riedel, who has worked as a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East for the last four U.S. presidents, told IPS.

With the claim of low civilian casualties decimated, the remaining justification for drones as an effective tool against terror becomes ever more important. But some analysts argue that the strikes actually breed more anti-U.S. militants than they eliminate.

“There is strong evidence,” said one landmark study, “to suggest that U.S. drone strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivate attacks against both U.S. military and civilian targets.”

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