With the announcement Thursday that US embassies across the Muslim world will temporarily close down on Sunday, August 4, American citizens abroad are wary. Such a move – involving 14 embassy facilities in North Africa, the Middle East and south Asia – could only be the result of a credible threat to US interests and assets.
Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement that the decision was a “precautionary” step. It is not clear how long any of the embassies will remain closed.
The State Department also issued a global travel alert for US citizens, but did not provide any specific information, other than to suggest that it is acting on intelligence that points to a specific threat – which the department described as “unspecified” – against one or more US facilities. Following last years’ planned attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of the US Ambassador and three other Americans, the State Department is clearly taking no chances.
The Benghazi attack occurred on September 11, which reflects the tendency of Islamist groups to stage terror assaults on prominent anniversaries. The dates chosen often coincide with the day of a prominent battle, the anniversary of a death, the founding of a particular organization or some other event significant to Muslims. In the Islamic world, Sundays are normal, working days; unlike the Christian faith, Sunday holds no significance as a day of rest or prayer. The Muslim holy day is Friday.
This Sunday, August 4, does happen to hold particular significance in the Muslim calendar, however. This day is known as Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power, and is said to be the night upon which the first verses of the Koran – the Muslim holy book also called the Qur’an – were revealed to Prophet Muhammad. As with all Muslim anniversaries, Laylat al-Qadr is determined by the Islamic calendar and, therefore, does not fall on the same Gregorian calendar date, every year. The Islamic calendar is based upon a lunar calendar. The Night of Power falls on the 23rd night of the Muslim holy month of fasting, known as Ramadan.
On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved measures designed to enhance security at U.S. embassies. Among the measures outlined in the Senate bill is the creation of a training center for diplomatic security personnel. The House Foreign Affairs Committee has also authorized full security funding for diplomatic missions. The US Consulate in Benghazi had seen its security scaled back, prior to last years’ attack, and its requests for extra measures had been repeatedly denied, despite repeated indications that the facility was under threat.
Whether the US Embassy closings on Sunday are related to any specific intelligence tied to this particular day, or if State Department officials factored the date into their security measures, has not been determined at this point. Neither is it clear as to whether any existing threat originate with the terror network al-Qaeda.
Graham J Noble