(CNSNews.com) – The State Department has instructed 16 U.S. embassies and three consulates in the Middle East and Africa to remain closed for the entire week amid continuing concerns about an al-Qaeda terror threat that prompted a worldwide travel alert Friday.
Congressional intelligence committee members and the Pentagon on Sunday described the threat as significant and credible.
On Sunday, 17 embassies and four consulates that would ordinarily have been operating on a Sunday were closed, in most of the Arab countries stretching from Mauritania in the west to Iraq in the east, as well as Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Sunday’s announcement extended the closure for most of those missions – and added several more that had not been on the original list.
The newcomers are all in sub-Saharan Africa – and of additional interest because unlike the rest of the shuttered missions, none is in a Muslim-majority country. They are the embassies in Mauritius (where Islam is the third most popular religion, followed by 17 percent of the population), Madagascar (seven percent Muslim), Burundi (five percent Muslim) and Rwanda (less than five percent Muslim).
Islamist terrorists have in the past often timed strikes to coincide with anniversaries of previous attacks. Wednesday marks the fifteenth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in which 224 people were killed, 12 of them American citizens. Like Mauritius, Madagascar, Burundi and Rwanda, neither Kenya nor Tanzania is a Muslim-majority country, although both have sizeable minorities.
The other U.S. missions shut this week, all in the Arab world, are the embassies in Libya, Egypt, Djibouti, Khartoum, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait; and the consulates in the UAE’s Dubai and the Saudi cities of Dhahran and Jeddah.
Those that will reopen on Monday after being closed on Sunday are in Mauritania, Algeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki attributed the extended closures to “an abundance of caution” rather than a response to a new threat.
She noted that some of the affected missions would in any case have been closed for most of the week to mark the end-of-Ramadan holiday of Eid-al-Fitr.
“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.”
In the worldwide alert issued Friday, the State Department said, “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.”
“Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests,” it said, adding that public transportation and tourist infrastructure were potential targets, and noting that rail, aviation and maritime services have been hit in the past.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday that the authorities are reacting to “a significant threat stream.”
Asked whether the terror plan was to bomb a diplomatic mission, he replied, “That part of it is unspecified, but the intent seems clear. The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S., interests.”
“We’ve received information that high level people from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are talking about a major attack,” ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said on the same program, referring to the Yemen-based affiliate of the terror network.
“It’s a very credible threat and it’s based on intelligence,” he said. “We know that al-Qaeda and other people out there want to attack us and kill us and our allies.”
Also appearing on “This Week,” House Homeland Security Committee chairman Rep. Peter King – also a member of the Intelligence Committee – called the threat “a wake-up call.”
“Al-Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before 9/11, because it's mutated and it spread and it can come at us from different directions. And al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is probably the most deadly of all the al Qaeda affiliates.”
“This threat was so specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also certain dates were given,” he said.
Both King and Ruppersberger rejected allegations that the administration was emphasizing the threat to divert attention from the controversy over National Security Agency data collection, triggered by the leaks by the fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
“It’s absolutely crazy to say there’s any conspiracy here,” said King. “The administration – and I’ve had problems with the administration on different issues – well, what they are doing now is what has to be done. They’d be derelict if they were not.
“And, you know, we can’t criticize them for doing too little with Benghazi and now criticize them for doing too much,” he continued. “I’m going to give them credit – they’ve learned from Benghazi. And that’s why they’re firming up the embassies. But also as far as this worldwide alert, I think it’s absolutely warranted in this situation.”
Last September’s terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya left questions unanswered for many GOP lawmakers and others, relating both to security decisions before the attack and the administration’s response afterwards. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed in the armed assault, which occurred on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.