Missile-armed drone aircraft launched the fifth attack on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen in 72 hours yesterday, as the U.S. stepped up raids after closing its embassy and warning Americans to leave the country.
The latest strike killed three people in a vehicle in the Ghail Bawazeer region, according to the al-Sahwa website of the opposition Islamist Islah party. The group is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. At least 22 suspected militants have been killed since Aug. 6, according to reports on the website.
The attacks occurred as the U.S., Britain and other Western countries closed their missions in Yemen and told citizens to leave, while Yemeni authorities said Aug. 7 they had foiled a plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, to seize port facilities in Mukalla, on the Gulf of Aden.
While the remaining core al-Qaeda group in Pakistan “is very weak and does not have a lot of operational capacity,” President Barack Obama told a news conference yesterday, “we still have these regional organizations, like AQAP, that can pose a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and can kill some people.”
The U.S. State Department tomorrow will reopen 18 of 19 embassies and consulates that were closed this week because of an unspecified terrorist threat, according to Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman. The facility in Sana’a, Yemen, and a mission in Lahore, Pakistan, will remain closed because of continuing threats from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, she said yesterday in a statement.
The department’s Aug. 2 global travel alert and an order closing diplomatic posts in 22 nations followed intercepts of communications among Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda chief in Pakistan; the head of AQAP, Nasir al-Wuhayshi; and other regional terrorist commanders, according to two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing classified matters.
The officials said reports that the terrorists held a conference call are incorrect, acknowledging that Zawahiri has been trying to coordinate terrorist activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Africa, Egypt’s Sinai desert, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The embassy in Sana’a will stay shut “because of ongoing concerns about a threat stream indicating the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Psaki said. She cited a “separate credible threat” against the consulate in Lahore as the reason for keeping it closed.
Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the terrorist “franchise that is most likely and most capable to launch an international attack,” Peter Salisbury, with London-based research organization Chatham House’s Yemen Forum, said in an interview. “The intelligence community was pretty worried before and are very worried now” about AQAP as “a source of attacks on Western interests.”
Across the Yemeni capital Sana’a, the government has boosted security around official buildings and embassies. Checkpoints have been set up, with soldiers patrolling the streets. At least three armored vehicles were seen yesterday near the U.S. Embassy.
Yesterday was the Eid holiday in Yemen, with few people on the streets as they joined their families for the festive occasion. Unlike recent days, no U.S. aircraft were seen yesterday over the capital.
“The U.S. drones and planes flying over our head and across the country is a flagrant breach of Yemen’s sovereignty - - I feel really sad and irritated by this,” Jamal Fatah,33, said in Sana’a yesterday as he walked past military vehicles in front of the defense ministry on al-Qiyadah Street.
Fatah’s friend Mohammed Abduljaleel, a 36-year-old engineer, said the blame lay with Yemen’s government. “It is their failure that brought the Americans here and pushed them to breach our sovereignty,” he said.
Saeed Obaid al-Jemhi, an expert on al-Qaeda and Islamist movements and the author of a book on the Yemeni group, said the intensified drone campaign will be counterproductive.
“The Americans feel these strikes will generate a positive impact and that is true, but there is a huge negative impact on Yemen,” he said. “This will generate more sympathizers with al-Qaeda and will also weaken the popularity of the Yemen’s President Hadi.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported a sharp increase in U.S. operations in Yemen in 2012, with at least 32 confirmed strikes, double the number carried out in 2011. Drones have been used to attack suspected al-Qaeda forces and other militants in Pakistan, where the U.S. intends to end the strikes soon, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Aug. 1.
The drone attacks in Yemen detailed by al-Sahwa this month include three yesterday in Ghail Bawazeer, Marib and Hadramaut that killed 11 people, as well as strikes in Shabwah on Aug. 7, killing seven, and in Marib Aug. 6, where four militants died.
A mountainous country described by the Central Intelligence Agency world factbook as mostly desert, Yemen has become a battleground against al-Qaeda militants planning attacks on Western targets and neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
In 2011, popular unrest led to the toppling of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh as ruler of the poorest country in the Middle East, which has struggled to contain the threat from Islamic militants even with U.S. military assistance.
Saudi authorities Aug. 8 arrested two people in contact with an al-Qaeda linked group outside the kingdom planning to carry out suicide operations, according to the official Saudi Press Agency, which cited the country’s Interior Ministry.
Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki told Al Arabiya television that there is a connection between the suspects and threats to embassies in the region.