By JAY SOLOMON And VICTORIA MCGRANE
WASHINGTON—The State Department has extended the closure of many American embassies in the Middle East by a week and has shuttered additional diplomatic missions, underscoring what U.S. officials said was the continued threat posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates.
U.S. officials on Sunday said the decision to close the embassies was based on the same intelligence that led the State Department on Friday to issue a global alert on the possibility for al Qaeda attacks across the broader Mideast and possibly into Europe and the U.S.
Obama administration officials said they are particularly tracking the operations of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as the primary organization behind the threat. These officials said they’ve monitored communications traffic between the Yemen-based group’s members indicating a major terrorist plot has become operational.
The Obama administration had initially said it was closing most of its Mideast embassies for just one day—Sunday.
“Given that a number of our embassies and consulates were going to be closed in accordance with local custom and practice for the bulk of the week…at the end of Ramadan, and out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to extend the closure of several embassies and consulates including a small number of additional posts,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Sunday. “This is not an indication of a new threat stream, merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps,” she said.
Among the embassies the State Department said it is closing through next Saturday are the U.S. missions in Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.
U.S. officials said they didn’t have any specifics on the targets al Qaeda might be pursuing, but stressed the terrorist threat continues unabated with the potential for attacks on embassies, airlines and mass transit systems.
A U.S. official said the Obama administration will be evaluating warnings and embassy closings on an “ongoing basis,” and added: “Sunday was the first day we really cared about.”
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday the terrorism threat leading the U.S. to close most of its embassies in the Middle East is “more specific” than other recent threats and was directed broadly at Western interests, not just those of the U.S.
Gen. Dempsey and a range of American lawmakers speaking on Sunday news shows emphasized both U.S. concern about the threat and the lack of precise details unearthed by intelligence services.
“There is a significant threat stream, and we are reacting to it,” Mr. Dempsey said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.” The threat is coming from an “Al Qaeda branch,” he said. “The intent is to attack Western, not just U.S. interests.”
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas) said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “this is probably one of the most specific and credible threats I’ve seen perhaps since 9/11.” He said the terror threat was notable because of the link to the Al Qaeda faction in the Arabian Peninsula.
Mr. McCaul and Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) were two of several Republican lawmakers Sunday to praise the Obama administration’s pre-emptive steps to alert the public and to protect personnel abroad. “The administration’s call to close these embassies was actually a very smart call, particularly in light of what happened in Benghazi,” Mr. McCaul said, referring to the fatal 2012 attack on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, over which the Obama administration has come under intense criticism from Republicans.
And several lawmakers used this latest terrorist threat to buttress their arguments about the importance of intelligence-gathering efforts of the National Security Agency. The NSA has been mired in controversy since former spy contractor Edward Snowden leaked scores of classified documents to media outlets describing the inner workings of U.S. spying and eavesdropping operations.
“The good news is that we picked up intelligence,” said Maryland Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. “That’s what NSA does. NSA’s sole purpose is to get information intelligence to protect Americans from attack.”
“The NSA program is proving its worth yet again,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said, speaking on CNN’s show “State of the Union.” He did not specify which particular NSA program. He said to his colleagues who are critical of the NSA’s intelligence gathering, “if you want to gut it you’re making us much less safe.”
Other lawmakers drew a distinction between NSA programs directed at overseas intelligence gathering as opposed to those that collect information on U.S. soil. Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a critic of the NSA’s collection of data on Americans’ phone calls, said on CNN that the NSA’s role in helping uncover the latest terror threat doesn’t change his mind about the program. He said he’s seen no indication that the program contributed to the information about this particular plot.
-Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article
Write to Jay Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Victoria McGrane at email@example.com