WASHINGTON: Intercepts between Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri and the leader of the group’s Yemen affiliate sparked Washington’s closure of US missions overseas and global travel alert, US media reported on Monday.
The New York Times (NYT) 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 (AQAP), 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 on Sunday. The State Department, acting “out of an abundance of caution” has extended some of the closures, saying 19 diplomatic outposts would remain shut through Saturday.
Britain has issued the highest possible security alert to British shipping companies operating off the coast of Yemen, an expert said on Tuesday, amid a worldwide terror alert focused on the country. Neil Roberts, a senior insurance underwriter at Lloyd’s Market Association, said the Department for Transport had issued a “level three” warning about Yemen on Monday.
Under the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code, level three is “exceptional”, suggesting a “probable or imminent risk of a security incident.”
Roberts said that the government advice suggested a more pressing threat.
“They have put it at security level three, which is unusual,” he said.
“This is a wake-up call for British shipowners that the risk has increased significantly.”
The Department of Transport refused to confirm the threat level, saying only that it was kept under “constant review.”
A spokeswoman said: “The department applies a system of worldwide security levels for UK flagged shipping in accordance with the ISPS code.
“These security levels take account of concerns such as the current situation in the Yemen. Companies operating vessels under a UK flag are informed promptly of any changes to the security levels. “The levels in place, and the security measures required to be implemented at each level, are kept under constant review.”
The UN refugee agency said it had boosted security in Yemen, as Western nations shut their embassies there following a worldwide terror alert issued by the United States.
“We’re there, but we’re operating under extreme caution, and certain restrictions,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told reporters, without giving details.
It was not clear what measures other UN aid agencies may have taken in the face of fears of an attack. The UN’s Geneva spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian said the world body did not comment on its security steps.
Lawmakers in Washington described the threat level as very serious. 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.”
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC News the threats were “more specific” than previous threats, although the exact target was unknown.