By Oren Dorell and David Jackson, USA TODAY
CAIRO - The shutdown of U.S. embassies and consulates and a warningto American tourists came in response to intelligence that a terrorattack from al-Qaeda was perhaps imminent, and some analysts say theplot may still be active.
The United States shut down 20 embassies and consulatesin the Middle East and Africa through Saturday. The Obamaadministration's decision may have disrupted an al-Qaeda terrorist plotbut that doesn't mean the terrorists will abandon their plans for good, aterror expert says.
"These types of plots - they get disruptedand sometimes the hit squads are called up, sometimes they get foldedinto another operation in the future," said Thomas Joscelyn, a terrorismanalyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. But in thelong term, "al-Qaeda doesn't give up on plans."
The Oct. 12, 2000,suicide bombing of the USS Cole occurred after a failed attemptagainst the USS Sullivans in January of that year. The destruction ofthe twin towers of the World Trade Center in 2001 came after a previousattempt to destroy one of the World Trade Center buildings in 1993, witha truck bomb.
"When they have plans on the books, if they think they're good plans, they come back to them," Joscelyn said.
TheState Department said the closures of embassies and consulates were outof an "abundance of caution" and not an "indication of a new threat."White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States faces "anongoing threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliates," and he singled outal-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
Carney said that although al-Qaeda has been "diminished" as a global force, "affiliate organizations ... have strengthened."
Inthe United States, New York City said it was increasing security atsome landmarks and houses of worship in response to he warnings. Someairports, such as Boston's Logan Airport, boosted security. But othermajor airports, including Atlanta and San Francisco, said they have not.
TheTransportation Security Administration had not implemented or requestednew security measures, according to airline officials.
For theUSA to shut down so many diplomatic facilities over such a largegeographical area means U.S. intelligence officials believe the plansthey came across "had some likelihood of success, meaning there's beensurveillance, reconnaissance, (and) teams have infiltrated to where theyneed to be," says Mark Jacobson, a senior fellow at the German MarshallFund.
"So, if it's this serious, this is something that's been inthe works for a while," said Jacobson, former deputy NATOrepresentative in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011.
Exactly whoremains behind the threat is still unclear, he said. It could be aresurgence of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan, one faction gaining dominance,or coordination between various factions, he said.
The New York Timesreported Monday that the closures were in response to interceptedcommunications between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Ladenas the head of al-Qaeda, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP.
AQAPhas been linked to several terror plots, including the attemptedChristmas Day 2009 bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of a U.S.airliner as it approached Detroit. The bomb, hidden in his underwear,failed to detonate.
It worked with the man charged in the TimesSquare bombing attempt and on a plot to bring down airliners with bombsin printer cartridges, both of which happened in 2010. Deceased Americanal-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was part of AQAP in Yemen.
Thenew embassies ordered to shut down through Saturday include facilitiesin central and east Africa, including the capitals of Burundi andRwanda. Authorities also closed a third site in Saudi Arabia. Amongthose closed Sunday: posts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Security wasbeefed up in Cairo and elsewhere as U.S. embassies and consulates closedbecause of the terror threat. The closures, which the State Departmentsays may be updated, are:
Carney says the United States isfocusing more attention on AQAP, which announced a new second in commandas the terrorist network launched a raft of prison outbreaks that freedhundreds of al-Qaeda foot soldiers and senior operatives.
Prisonbreaks last week in Iraq and Libya appear al-Qaeda-related and one inPakistan was perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban, which is closelylinked to al-Qaeda, Joscelyn said. Hundreds of inmates were freed ineach, including many al-Qaeda operatives, he said.
Together thenews looks like a "coming-out party" for al-Wuhayshi, the new chief ofAQAP, whom Zawahiri last week named his second in command, Joscelynsaid. Al Wuhayshi, who had been a deputy of Osama Bin Laden since beforeSept. 11, was himself broken out of a Yemeni prison in 2009.
"Underhis leadership of AQAP, he was able to seize turf in Yemen whilesimultaneously launch plots against the United States," Joscelyn said.
AlWuhayshi's rise in the organization shows that Obama administrationofficials, such as CIA director John Brennan, were wrong to try todistinguish between "al-Qaeda central" and the movement's affiliates inother countries, Joscelyn said.
"If this guy is now generalmanager of al-Qaeda operations and its affiliates - this shows (that)just because he's in Yemen doesn't make him any less of a core al-Qaedamember," Joscelyn said.
A worldwide travel alert remains in effectuntil Aug. 31. That alert warns U.S. citizens that al-Qaeda andaffiliated groups continue to plan terrorist attacks particularly in theMiddle East and North Africa.
"We may be seeing an effort, atrend, of al-Qaeda trying to announce its relevance, trying to show theworld it's still in the game," said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associatein the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for InternationalPeace. "And some sort of spectacular attack on a U.S. facility wouldcertainly do that."
This week marks the 15th anniversary ofterrorist attacks on U.S embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Tanzania thatkilled hundreds of people. France, Germany and the United Kingdom alsoclosed their embassies in Yemen on Sunday, the start of the workweek inthe region.