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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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August 2nd, 2013
05:32 PM ET

Analysis: Al Qaeda in Yemen has 'the desire and the capability' to attack

(CNN) - A global travel alert issued Friday by the State Department said al Qaeda may launch attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond in coming weeks, and the U.S. government prepared to close 21 embassies and consulates in the region Sunday as a precaution.

The steps showed the heightened concerns about what U.S. officials said was intelligence in recent days that indicated a potential attack emanating from al Qaeda in Yemen, also known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

"The fact is AQAP remains the most capable al Qaeda affiliate out there, and the only one that, I would say, really has the desire and the capability to launch attacks outside of its own country," said Daniel Benjamin, former coordinator for counterterrorism for the U.S. State Department.

Yet what could be so broad about this threat in Yemen that the U.S. would close so many embassies and consulates in the region? 

"The breadth of that action probably reflects some uncertainty about what's threatened and the actual geographical focus of it," said Benjamin.

But the 15th anniversary of the August, 7, 1998 Africa bombings is approaching, when al Qaeda operatives targeted U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, Dar es Salaam, and Tanzania.

"That was a catalytic moment, and it was a moment when al Qaeda really established its hallmark of multiple, simultaneous attacks," said Benjamin.

"It wouldn't be that surprising if AQAP was plotting something, that it was plotting multiple attacks in an effort to show the group is still in the game, still active," said Benjamin.

Though Benjamin said he is dubious that the group has operations in 21 countries.

For more of our interview with Daniel Benjamin, check out the video above.

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