By AHMED AL-HAJ
and MATTHEW LEE
SANAA, Yemen — Yemen was thrust back into the forefront of the international fight against terrorism Tuesday when the U.S. and Britain evacuated embassy staff due to a threatened attack, a suspected U.S. drone killed four alleged members of al-Qaida, and militants shot down a Yemeni army helicopter.
As Westerners flew out of the country, Yemeni authorities launched a wide investigation into the al-Qaida threat to multiple potential targets in the impoverished Arab nation. Security officials said they believed the terror network was seeking retaliation for a U.S.-backed military offensive that has dealt serious setbacks to the terror network’s most active branch, including the death earlier this year of its No. 2 leader.
The Yemeni army, meanwhile, surrounded foreign installations, government offices and the airport with tanks and troops in the nation’s capital, Sanaa, as well as the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula, drawing parallels with security measures following the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor that killed 17 American sailors.
Authorities also set up checkpoints across Sanaa, searching cars and individuals, especially after night fell. Top government officials, along with military and security commanders, were told to stay vigilant and limit their movements.
Although the immediate threat seemed to be focused on Yemen, the U.S. has temporarily shut down 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa. A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat told The Associated Press that the closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major terror attack. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. Zawahri also made a public statement on July 30 that exhorted Muslims to kill Americans “in every spot on Earth.”
Yemeni investigators looking into the threat said they believe the motive of the attack was retaliation for the killing of Saudi-born Saeed al-Shihri, who was released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay after nearly six years and later became the No. 2 al-Qaida leader in Yemen. Al-Shihri was critically wounded in a November drone strike and later died of his wounds, the militant group acknowledged.
The terror network has suffered a series of setbacks after the military launched an offensive in June with the help of U.S. forces that has succeeded in uprooting it from strongholds in the south. The group had taken advantage of the instability after the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that led to the resignation of Yemen’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen’s current president, Abdo Rabby Mansour Hadi, met with President Barack Obama at the White House last week, where both leaders cited strong counterterrorism cooperation.
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the U.S. Air Force transported State Department personnel out of Sanaa early Tuesday. The department said in a travel warning that it had ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government personnel “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks,” adding that U.S. citizens should leave immediately because of an “extremely high” security threat level.
A senior defense official said that between 50 and 100 diplomatic personnel were flown from Sanaa in a military transport to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The official was not authorized to discuss the information publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official said dozens of military troops remain in Yemen, including those providing security at the embassy and others training Yemeni troops.
Britain’s Foreign Office also said it evacuated all staff from its embassy due to increased security concerns. The Foreign Office said the staff were “temporarily withdrawn to the U.K.” And the Dutch Foreign Ministry has issued a call for about 40 of its citizens to leave Yemen, although it did not say whether that included its six embassy workers.
Yemen’s government criticized the evacuations in a statement from its embassy in Washington, saying the diplomatic withdrawal “serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation” between Yemen and the international community in fighting terrorism. It insisted that its government has taken all precautions to ensure the security of foreign missions in Sanaa.
Meanwhile, there has been a spike in apparent U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaida leaders. The attack Tuesday was the fourth in two weeks.
Yemeni officials say the drone fired a missile at a car carrying four men in the al-Arqeen district of Marib province, setting it on fire and killing them. One of the dead was believed to be Saleh Jouti, a senior al-Qaida member.
In Sanaa, residents awoke to the sound of an aircraft overhead. Officials said it was American, and photos posted on Instagram appeared to show a P-3 Orion, a manned surveillance aircraft.
The rare overflight of the capital came shortly before the announcements of the evacuations.
The Yemeni military helicopter was shot down by a missile over the al-Qaida stronghold of Wadi Ubida in central Yemen, officials said. The helicopter was flying from Sanaa to Marib province, officials said. The eight who were killed, including a military commander, were part of a military force guarding oil installations in the province.
The Yemeni officials who provided the information on the suspected drone, the helicopter downing and the security in the capital all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Yemeni authorities also released the names of 25 wanted al-Qaida suspects Monday, saying they were planning terrorist attacks in Sanaa and other cities.
Officials say potential U.S. targets in Sanaa could include the embassy and other buildings used by the United States to house personnel, as well as a military facility a few kilometers (miles) outside used by U.S. aircraft.
The government statement said security forces will pay $23,000 to anyone coming forward with information leading to the arrest of any of the wanted men. Among them are alleged senior figures in al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, including Saudi nationals Ibrahim Mohammed el-Rubaish and Ibrahim Hassan el-Assiri.
El-Rubaish was released from Guantanamo in 2006 and is believed to have played significant roles in al-Qaida’s expanding offshoot in Yemen. He is a theological adviser to the group and his writings and sermons are prominent in its literature.
Military officials said the threat may be related to the Bab al-Mandeb, pointing to a visit Sunday by the defense minister, Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to Yemeni forces positioned at the Red Sea entrance about 276 kilometers (170 miles) south of Sanaa.
Officials said the visit came after they received intelligence that al-Qaida could be targeting foreign or Yemeni interests at the vital maritime corridor, a main thoroughfare for international shipping but also a crossing point for smuggled weapons and illegal immigrants between east Africa and Yemen.
Ahmed urged the forces to stay “on alert against any sabotage operations aiming at destabilizing the country,” according to the officials. They also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Yemen, a decentralized and predominantly Muslim country that is the ancestral homeland of the late al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden, has been the site of numerous anti-U.S. plots and attacks.
Besides the strike against the USS Cole, al-Qaida attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in 2008, killing one American. Western embassies were locked up in 2010, days after the foiled plot on Christmas Day in which a passenger on a Detroit-bound plane allegedly tried to detonate explosives in his underwear. The Obama administration said the suspect was trained and armed by the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen.
Washington considers the al-Qaida branch in Yemen to be among the terrorist network’s most dangerous. The United States has also assisted Yemen in fighting the militants who, at one point in the country’s recent turmoil, had overrun large sections of the south. The group has also carried out bold attacks on Yemeni security forces, killing hundreds in the past two years.
A Yemeni security council met later Tuesday to discuss security leaks, according to an official with knowledge of the meeting. Council members concluded that government officials had passed on information to al-Qaida under Saleh’s rule and that some of those leaks continued even after Hadi took over, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting.
Lee reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Lolita C. Baldor and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.