(CNSNews.com) – Many U.S. embassies across the Middle East will be closed on Sunday – usually a working day in the Arab world – in what the State Department says is a precautionary measure based on “security considerations.”
The State Department has not released a list of the missions ordered to close, but a review of official websites shows that they include the embassies in most Arab capitals from Cairo to Baghdad, as well as those in Israel, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Exceptions are the embassies in Beirut and Islamabad, but neither is usually open on a Sunday anyway.
“The Department has been apprised of information that, out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installations, indicates we should institute these precautionary steps,” says a notice posted on many of the affected embassies’ websites.
“It is possible we may have additional days of closings as well, depending on our analysis,” it adds. As of early Friday all specified closures were for Sunday only except for the embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, which will be closed on Sunday and Monday.
“The Department, when conditions warrant, takes steps like this to balance our continued operations with security and safety,” the notice says. “However, beyond this announcement we do not discuss specific threat information, security considerations or measures, or other steps we may be taking.”
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she would not “go into any more detail about specific threat information,” or any particular significance attached to the August 4 date.
August 4 this year marks the 27th night of Ramadan, which according to most but not all Muslim scholars is Laylat al-Qadr (“night of power” or “night of destiny”), when Muslims believe the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to Mohammed in the 7th century.
The Qur’an describes the night as “better than a thousand months,” and many devout Muslims stay up through the night.
In its entry for August 4, the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center’s 2013 calendar notes: “Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power; the night of revelation of Qur’an to Mohammed, begins this evening.)”
The 2013 NTCT calendar does not offer any further detail about the night, but in earlier editions up until 2010 (archived copy) it commented, “Islamic extremists might consider Laylat al-Qadr (“Night of Power”) especially auspicious for a terrorist attack. Islamic tradition holds that on this night rewards for deeds pleasing to Allah are magnified a thousandfold; extremists, in particular, believe that the gates of heaven are opened then for those who wage ‘jihad’ in defense of Islam to enter paradise.”
Since the Islamic calendar is lunar, dates of holidays change each year. Major Islamist terror attacks that have taken place around Laylat-al-Qadr in the years since 9/11 include: an attack on the Indian parliament, 13 killed (Dec. 2011); suicide bombings at the British consulate-general in Istanbul, 30 killed (Nov. 2003); a suicide car bombing in Kirkuk, Iraq, five killed (Nov. 2003); bombings in New Delhi, 62 killed (Oct. 2005); and a Boko Haram suicide bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, 25 killed (Aug. 2011).
On Thursday the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a State Department authorization bill that entails a nine percent cut overall from last year, but does fund in full the administration’s request for embassy security, including $2.65 billion for embassy security, construction, and maintenance, and $2.18 billion for a worldwide security program, which covers diplomatic security personnel.
The bill also comprises other security measures, introduced in response to the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya last September, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed.
They include a requirement that the State Department designate a list of high-risk, high-threat posts and ensure they have the security measures and funding needed; and a requirement that the State and Defense departments jointly develop contingency plans for emergencies, including planning for the rapid deployment of military resources.