Panic in Yemen: Terrorist Threat Shutters U.S. and U.K. Embassies

In a fragile country, the mere threat of a terror attack may be a boon to al-Qaeda.

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Yemeni soldiers search vehicles at a checkpoint on a street leading to the U.S. embassy compound as authorities tighten security measures in Sanaía, Yemen, on Aug. 6, 2013.

When the United States and the United Kingdom abruptly closed their embassies in the Middle East Sunday, due to unspecified threats of a possible al-Qaeda attack ahead of the upcoming Muslim holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, U.S. and U.K. expatriates in Yemen took it all in stride. Travel alerts for those countries’ citizens had always been high. Both the U.S. and the U.K. have discouraged visitors since 2009, even before Yemen became known in the news as the home of the al-Qaeda explosives expert who invented the infamous underwear bomb, but the country still manages to attract a steady stream of development workers, journalists and students eager to learn Arabic in the capital’s many language schools.

By Tuesday, however, the region-wide threat—still unspecified—seemed to focus exclusively on Yemen. At dawn, U.K. Ambassador Jane Marriott tweeted a cheerful note in honor of the last day of Ramadan: “It’s a beautiful Sana’a morning in this wonderful country called Yemen. Here’s hoping for a peaceful Ramadan and Eid.” Just a few hours later she was on an emergency flight evacuating all British Embassy personnel, leaving the embassy shuttered for an unspecified amount of time. While essential U.S. personnel still remain, the American embassy is closed, and Reuters reports some 75 US citizens were also evacuated by C-130 cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

British Ambassador Marriott may have found beauty in Sana’s sunrise, but the skies over Yemen were hardly peaceful Tuesday morning. Both expatriates and Yemenis reported seeing and hearing a steady stream of surveillance drones over the capital. By mid morning, U.S. security officials told CNN that a pair of American-operated drones had shot down four al-Qaeda suspects traveling by car in the country’s central province of Maarib, confirming earlier reports by local tribal leaders. It is still unclear whether those targets had anything to do with the threats of an imminent al-Qaeda attack, though Yemen’s official news agency later confirmed that the four killed were members of the terrorist group.

When the Middle East embassies first closed, the US State Department declared that it was out of “an abundance of caution.” Later it emerged that the warnings stemmed from an intercepted conversation  between al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Pakistan and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization’s Yemeni affiliate. In Sana’a, security officials told local journalists that several al-Qaeda affiliates had arrived in the capital and presented a list of 25 “most wanted” terrorists that they suspected were planning an attack. There were few specifics, however, engendering a large degree of skepticism by some residents.

Many found it hard to believe that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi would be so indiscrete to have a direct conversation about a pending attack, especially given the depths of US surveillance of terror networks in the country. The terror attack in question, though, may have nothing to do with detonating bombs and everything to do with spreading chaos, according to Tik Root, a former language student in Yemen from Vermont who became a freelance journalist based in Sana’a. After all, Yemen, which is only just emerging from its own catastrophic revolution, still threatens to collapse under the threat of civil war, the lack of a viable central government and warlord-dominated police and military that have failed to bring security. As a failed state, Yemen is a far greater risk to the world, and a boon to al-Qaeda, than a terror threat is today. Driving out foreigners–especially experts set to help the country draft a new constitution next week as part of a nation building exercise designed to bring greater stability–may simply be the first step in a larger strategy to strengthen al-Qaeda by giving it a better base of operations.