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Embassy shutdowns happen, but not usually on this scale

On Sunday, the State Department will close 21 diplomatic posts around the world in a move to safeguard personnel from possible terrorist attacks.

Benghazi 2013 6 27Enlarge
A vehicle and the surrounding area are engulfed in flames after it was set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on Sept. 11, 2012. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The US State Department will close 21 embassies and consulates around the Muslim world on Sunday, Aug. 4, citing a "credible threat" of possible Al Qaeda-related attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere. 

The broad and unprecedented measure accompanies a global travel warning, in effect from now until Aug. 31, that suggests terrorists may plan an attack during that time, with an unidentified US official telling CNN there has been "more than the usual chatter" on that front. 

California Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday on CNN's "New Day" that he understood the threat to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Middle East and in Central Asia.

The State Department has not provided specifics on the potential attacks, and the US Embassy in Iraq — as with other diplomatic posts being shut down — states on its website that it will not "discuss specific threat information, security considerations or measures, or other steps we may be taking."

It's not uncommon for a diplomatic mission to close if officials believe there's a serious threat to its personnel. US Embassies or consulates in Afghanistan, Greece, Yemen, Pakistan and other countries have all been attacked this decade. 

The US Embassy in restive Cairo shut down its offices last Sunday — the first work day of the work week in many Muslim nations — due to mass protests. 

On Oct. 29, 2008, the embassy in Damascus announced it would close the next day, citing large-scale demonstrations that it said had "resulted in violence and significant damage to US facilities and other embassies."

As State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a briefing on Thursday, "security considerations have led us to take this precautionary step, as we do from time to time."

And of course, there were closings of US diplomatic posts after the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the US compound in Benghazi. A week later, the embassy in Afghanistan closed its operations "due to security incidents in Kabul." 

However, a warning this broad and closure of this scale are unusual.

The closures will remind many of the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Steven and three other Americans. The date marking one year since that assault — and the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks — is fast approaching.

Because of Benghazi, the State Department initiated a $1.4 billion plan last year to meet 29 security recommendations made by the Accountability Review Board to increase safety at its most threatened diplomatic posts abroad. 

More from GlobalPost: How secure are US posts abroad?

The political fallout of Benghazi, which began during the 2012 presidential election, is still palpable in Washington. Rep. Ted Poe, chairman of the House's terrorism and nonproliferation panel, told Foreign Policy on Friday the closures appear to be an overreaction based on fear of another Benghazi.

"Terrorism works — because we're closing all of our embassies and consulates on one day," he said. "We'd rather be safe than have somebody hurt but the long term answer is every time someone gets information, we can't shut them all down all over the world."

It's around this time of the year, usually close to Sept. 11, that US embassies are scheduled for review. 

President Barak Obama, who celebrates his birthday on Sunday, has been informed of the situation. Harf said in a briefing that the government has been "apprised of information ... that indicates we should institute these precautionary steps.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/130802/us-embassies-close-background-terror-threat