State Department Issues Travel Alert Over Potential Al-Qaeda Attack

State Department
U.S. Department of State

The State Department has issued a worldwide travel alert that Al-Qaeda is planning an attack in the Middle East or North Africa in the month of August.

The press release, which has not yet appeared on the State Department website [Update: Here's the alert] but is reprinted by Business Insider in full, warns,

“The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August. This Travel Alert expires on August 31, 2013.”It adds, “We strongly recommend that U.S. citizens Traveling abroad enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP enrollment gives you the latest security updates, and makes it easier for the U.S. embassy or nearest U.S. consulate to contact you in an emergency. If you don’t have Internet access, enroll directly with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.”

CNN is reporting that some U.S. embassies in the region, including those in Egypt and Israel, will close starting on Sunday for an unspecified length of time.

As of this writing, there is no detail about the nature of the threat.

Update: August 5, 10:07 a.m.
Nineteen U.S. diplomatic posts have also been closed, at least through this week.

Posts in 19 Countries to Remain Closed

Man Says He Poisoned All Passengers Aboard Hong Kong To New Jersey Flight

United Plane
Franco Folini, Flickr

A man is being questioned by authorities after he claimed to have poisoned everyone traveling on United Flight 116. The flight, which was making its way from Hong Kong to Newark’s Liberty Airport, landed at 1:34 p.m. today, several hours after a male passenger made the frightening declaration.

According to news reports, the passenger was in an emotionally disturbed state. He made the announcement about having poisoned everyone on board several hours before the flight was due to arrive in New Jersey.Despite this, the FBI said the decision was made not to divert the plane to a closer airport. Instead, flight attendants surrounded the man along with a number of other passengers who volunteered to help restrain him for the duration of the flight.

Both local police and FBI agents were notified and were ready to meet the plane as soon as it landed. According to an FBI spokesman, there is no evidence that any passengers were actually poisoned.

UNESCO Reports Damage To Timbuktu Worse Than Previously Reported

Timbuktu
Emilio Labrador

A team from UNESCO has visited Timbuktu in Mali to make its first on-the-ground assessment of the damage caused by last year’s occupation by the Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith).

The group took over Timbuktu in April 2012 and imposed a harsh form of Shariah law. Believing the city’s famous shrines and medieval manuscripts to be against Islam, even though they were created by Muslims, they began to destroy them. Early this year a coalition of Malian and French forces pushed Ansar Dine out of the city and into the northern fringes of the country, where they remain a threat.

Now that the situation has temporarily stabilized, UNESCO sent a team to investigate the damage. They had some grim findings. While recent reports stated that the damage wasn’t as bad as originally thought, that turns out not to be true.

Expedition leader Lazare Eloundou Assomo of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre said, “We discovered that 14 of Timbuktu’s mausoleums, including those that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, were totally destroyed, along with two others at the Djingareyber Mosque. The emblematic El Farouk monument at the entrance to the city was razed. We estimate that 4,203 manuscripts from the Ahmed Baba research center were lost.”

Thousands of other manuscripts were taken away from Timbuktu before the Islamists could get their hands on them. Most are now in the capital Bamako. While this saved them, Mr. Assomo told the BBC that they need to be returned to the controlled environment of the research center before the humid rainy season sets in and causes damage to the fragile pages.

The Day I Was Mistaken For A Terrorist

For some reason, people sometimes mistake me for a terrorist. Once I got interrogated by an air marshal for merely looking out a window, and the following year in London I totally freaked out several people on a bus.

The second incident was, I suppose, partially my fault. I boarded a city bus with a large suitcase, which I put on the luggage rack. Since the rack was right next to the door, I moved a little away from it so I wouldn’t be in the way.

For a couple of minutes I stood there, keeping an eye on my bag and not listening to the buzz of voices around me. One conversation, however, began to get my attention.

“I just don’t think it looks right,” a worried woman’s voice said.

“Well, then mention it to the driver,” a man said.

“I don’t want to make a fuss,” the woman replied.

“Look, you’re worried about it just sitting there. You don’t see the owner. So go up to the driver and mention it,” the man said. He didn’t sound worried himself. Instead he sounded a bit condescending.

I turned to them.”Are you talking about my bag?” I asked.

A wave of relief washed over the woman’s face.

“Yes!” she cried. “I didn’t see you put it down and nobody was standing around it, and I got very worried.”

“Don’t worry, no bomb in it, just a bunch of dirty clothes,” I said. Then I turned to the man next to her. “But you didn’t seem worried.”

He shrugged. “Nobody would need a bag that big to blow up a bus.”

I laughed. “Well maybe I’m a really inefficient bomber and I don’t know how to mix explosives correctly.”

“Oh no,” he dismissed that idea. “That is a huge bag. If it was filled with explosives you could barely lift it.”

I studied them for a moment and said, “So how do you know I’m really not a terrorist? All you have is my word.”

They looked back at me – middle-aged, middle-class, white me. The woman suddenly looked embarrassed. The man looked defiant.

“You don’t fit the profile,” he said.

“Remember Timothy McVeigh?” I asked.

He waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “The right wing loons in your country rarely do such things. Most terrorists look nothing like you.”

I smiled at him. “Who’s to say I’m not a right-wing loon?”

“WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP THIS CONVERSATION?!!!” A woman squawked from a few rows back.

“Sorry ma’am. This was all hypothetical,” I said.

She immediately looked relieved, just like the first woman. All it took was a reassuring word from a complete stranger – a light-skinned, well-spoken stranger.

She, too, had missed the point.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Scammer Found Selling Fake Bomb Detectors To Airports

bomb detectorsA British court has found a man guilty of selling fake bomb detectors to Iraq and Georgia, the BBC reports. James McCormick, 56, of Langport, Somerset, was found guilty of fraud after making a fortune from detectors he knew didn’t work.

He’s estimated to have made some $76 million from the worthless devices, which were modeled after a novelty golf ball finder. In his sales pitches he claimed they could be set to find anything from bombs to money to drugs. Researchers found no scientific basis for his claims.

Both nations that bought the devices have serious problems with terrorism, and adventure travelers that venture to these places were put in danger by McCormick’s greed. In Georgia last year, someone put a bomb under the car of an Israeli embassy staffer, and bombings in Iraq are a frequent occurrence.

The BBC says the devices are still at use at “some” checkpoints. When I was traveling in Iraq in October 2012, I saw them in use at every checkpoint I passed through, including the checkpoints to Baghdad airport. Many people already knew they didn’t work; yet they were still used to “scan” every vehicle. Senior Iraqi officials were bribed to use government funds (i.e. U.S. taxpayer dollars) to buy the devices. Three of these officials are now serving prison terms.

McCormick lulled the Iraqi police and army into a false sense of security and endangered the lives of everyone in Iraq, including myself. To say this makes me angry doesn’t even come close to what I feel towards this scumbag, and it makes me wonder about the other “security devices” we rely on. Last year the TSA removed backscatter x-ray body scanners from some airports for fear of cancer risks and replaced them with less harmful millimeter-wave scanners. The effectiveness of x-ray scanners has also been questioned.

I’m glad to see McCormick is finally facing justice, but I think he’s been found guilty of the wrong thing. He didn’t perpetrate fraud; he aided and abetted terrorism. He should spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement, kept company only by graphic photos of Iraq’s bombing victims.

[Photo courtesy Avon and Somerset Police]