The impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation of Yemen emerged as the epicentre of a new al-Qaeda terror threat Tuesday, as the United States sent in Air Force transports to evacuate embassy staff and urged its citizens to leave.
But the alert, reportedly prompted by the interception of high-level chatter about an imminent attack, has also raised questions about the U.S. decision to temporarily close 19 embassies and consulates around the world. From Yemen’s government to U.S. political commentators, some are questioning whether Washington’s global shutdown hands a symbolic victory to terrorists.
The evacuation of embassy staff followed a suspected U.S. drone strike that killed four alleged al-Qaeda members, hitting their car in Yemen’s Marib province. Yemeni forces tightened their grip on the capital, Sanaa, sending tanks and troops into the streets, surrounding foreign embassies, government offices and the airport.
The United States and Britain evacuated their embassy staff, and this time the U.S. precautions came with pointed warnings of a terrorist threat.
The State Department said it had ordered non-emergency personnel to leave “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks.” It added that U.S. citizens should leave immediately because of an “extremely high” threat level.
The events appeared to point to Yemen as the threat centre for a new attack, after a weekend when U.S. officials closed diplomatic posts across the world to respond to a new scare – one that apparently did not specify the target in detail.
Several major news organization, including The New York Times, the Associated Press and Reuters, reported that the alert was raised after the interception of a message between the current head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the leader of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, about a major attack.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has emerged as one of the most threatening affiliates of the terrorist organization, and is able to operate relatively freely in a country where the weak government has little control over some parts of its territory. The U.S. has provided military support and conducted an extensive campaign of drone strikes over the past 18 months in a bid to disrupt AQAP’s activities.
Tuesday’s drone strike was the fourth in the past two weeks, and was believed to have killed senior al-Qaeda member Salek Jouti, according to Yemeni officials. But militants made their own strike: They downed a Yemeni helicopter over Wadi Ibida in central Yemen, killing eight.
Yemen’s government, meanwhile, criticized the evacuations of foreign embassies – saying it gives terrorists what they want and “undermines the exceptional co-operation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.”
“The evacuation of embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists,” Yemen’s government said in a statement.
In Yemen, several other Western countries took precautions against an attack, including Britain, which said its staff had been “temporarily withdrawn to the U.K.,” and France, which announced over the weekend it would shut its Sanaa embassy as a precaution. Canada does not have an embassy in Yemen, and has long warned citizens not to travel there.
But Canada and most other Western countries chose not to follow the lead of the U.S. last week, when 22 American diplomatic posts, mostly in Muslim countries, were closed temporarily. On Sunday, Canada closed its embassy in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, which is in a building near the U.S. embassy, but it reopened Monday.
The U.S. has reopened a few missions, including the fortress-like embassies in Baghdad and Kabul, but 19 will remain closed throughout the week.
There have been dozens of attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities, including a 2008 attack in Sanaa that killed 16, and the infamous simultaneous truck bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed 224.
But shutting so many embassies without a specific threat has prompted some to question whether Washington is sending the wrong signal.
“You’re sending a message to terrorists: You are able to affect our operations. That’s exactly the message you don’t want to send,” said Christian Leuprecht, a terrorism expert at Queen’s University and the Royal Military College.
But the Obama administration is likely very “risk averse” after the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four people, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, he noted.
Security expert Ray Boisvert, a former assistance director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said it’s clear that temporary closures of embassies won’t stop a network like al-Qaeda from attacking. “But what it does is it buys you time,” he said. “And rest assured, they’re hunting.”