Yemen's Jihadis Raise Their Game With Embassy Attacks

Wednesday's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, which left 16 people dead, shows the challenges and limitations faced by the Yemeni government against an evolving extremist threat.

Considered a U.S. ally in the war on terror, Yemen's government faces a broad swath of challenges as it works to keep control of the country and keep terror attacks at bay.

Islamic militants, including groups linked to al Qaeda, have long operated from Yemen. Since the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in 2000, an attack that killed 17 American sailors, jihadist groups have attacked American and Western targets using relatively unsophisticated tactics.

The embassy attack today was a marked change, involving heavy weaponry and gunmen dressed as local police in an attempt to gain access to the compound.

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"The attack is the most sophisticated Islamist militant attack in Yemen in recent years and marks a significant increase in jihadist capabilities in the country," wrote Stratfor analysis, a political and security risk assessment firm.

"It's a big shock. This is the first time extremists have the courage to directly attack the U.S. Embassy," Mohammed Al-Qadhi, a Yemeni journalist and commentator, told ABC News. "This is a change in strategy. They want to reach their targets directly."

The sharpening of terror tactics in Yemen runs counter to the perceived decline of al Qaeda, which many believe has lost strength and public sympathy.

"We have seen more terror activity in Yemen lately ... at a time when al Qaeda has faded from the radar screen in Saudi Arabia almost entirely," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert with the Library of Congress.

Some experts see Yemen as a haven for terrorists, migrating opportunistically toward a state less tightly in control of its own security.

"Given Yemen's geographic position -- sandwiched between the jihadist hubs of Somalia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and its significant Salafist minority, it was only a matter of time before more skilled, battle-hardened militants made their way ... in search of more favorable conditions to wage their insurgency," Stratfor wrote.

For nearly a decade American landmarks in Yemen have been subject to ongoing threats and attempted violence. In response, the embassy has increased its fortifications with layers of thick security and concrete barriers.

Wednesday's attack occurred at its outer perimeter, with most of the physical damage around the front gate.

Yemen, dominated by a conservative tribal culture, has struggled in its economic and social development. Arguably the oldest and richest culture in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is now the poorest country in the gulf.

It faces a water shortage, a booming population and the depletion of the oil reserves that account for much of the country's revenue. Widespread use of a locally grown narcotic called khat holds back productivity and economic growth.

Modern Yemen has existed only since 1990, after decades of a civil war that left veins of sectarian fighting and factionalism running through the country. It is also the ethnic homeland of Osama bin Laden.

Yemenis form the largest group of detainees still held at Guantanamo Bay, according to a local media count in January. Among the public, many support government efforts to crack down on violent extremists. Others find common ground with militant attackers.

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