Embassies in Yemen Close as Security Forces Step Up Offensive Against Al Qaeda

Embassies in Yemen remain closed amid fears of new attacks.

ByABC News via logo
January 4, 2010, 7:56 AM

Jan. 4, 2010— -- President Obama returned today from his vacation in Hawaii as the United States steps up air travel security and refocuses its attention on Yemen, where threats from al Qaeda groups have forced several embassies to close.

The U.S. embassy in Yemen's capital city of San'a was closed for a second straight day because of ongoing threats by al Qaeda. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today said these threats predate this holiday season, and added that the embassy will open "when security conditions permit."

United States officials are not alone in their concerns about an imminent al Qaeda threat in Yemen. Japan also closed its embassy, as did the British for unspecified "security reasons."

Security at the embassies and other potential Western targets in Yemen is tighter than ever as fears of an attack mount.

Yemen has been the site of suspected terror activity for some time. In September 2008, twin suicide car bombs at the U.S. embassy killed more than a dozen people. But officials suspect a new attack could be worse. Intelligence indicates that four or five suicide bombers are in the "operational stage," either on their way or already heading for targets inside San'a, according to U.S. officials.

On Dec. 17, Yemeni security forces managed to kill three suicide bombers and find a vest of a fourth. But officials believe different suicide bombers have been trained for new attacks.

A U.S. official tells ABC News that it is believed that Umar Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old who planned to blow up U.S.-bound Northwest Flight 253, was trained and equipped at the same al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula training camp in Abyan that was struck by U.S. cruise missiles, and then followed by an attack from Yemeni ground forces, on Dec. 17th.

The clampdown on terror suspects has already begun in the volatile Arab country. Just outside of the capital, government forces clashed with al Qaeda militants and officials said several had been killed.

Yemeni forces in San'a today went after Nazil al Hanq, a key leader of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claimed responsibility for the botched Christmas Day terror plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airline. Al Hanq would be a big catch for the Yemenis because they believe he was one of the men behind plans by al Qaeda to blow up Western or Yemeni government targets. But even though security forces killed two men close to him in the firefight, they were unable to get al Hanq. Embassies are likely to stay closed until further notice.

Until the past few weeks, Yemeni forces had been focusing specifically on rebel group al Houthi in the northern part of the country, and separatists in the south. But with local officials acknowledging that al Qaeda is now stronger than ever, Yemeni forces are gearing up for more intense fighting around the country.

"Their idea is to overtake whole of Yemen," Yemen Army Gen. Yahya M.A. Saleh told ABC News. "Al Houthi wants part of Yemen, separatist groups want part of Yemen, al Qaeda wants the whole Yemen, not only to stay in Yemen, but to spread all over the world and export terrorists."

Additional U.S. special forces have been deployed to Yemen to help the local army and security forces with counterterrorism training, and to provide intelligence and firepower.

"Instability in Yemen is a threat to regional stability and even global stability," Clinton today said at a joint press conference with Hamad Bin Jassim Jabr Al-Thani, Prime Minster and Foreign Minister of Qatar. "This is a difficult set of challenges but they have to be addressed."

Training and providing assistance to locals will be the key to fighting the war against terrorism but Americans shouldn't expect U.S. military action in Yemen, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward said today,

"It's confusing, I think, to the average person," he said on "Good Morning America. "We've got these ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but al Qaeda sanctuaries are in Pakistan, in places like Yemen, we don't have ground wars going on.

"The president there has taken a very aggressive stance in going after al Qaeda -- the key to this ground operations by other countries, quite frankly," Woodward told "GMA's" George Stephanopoulos.

And it is not only in Pakistan and Yemen where alleged terror groups are breeding.

"Somalia ... is another place of worry," Woodward said. "In fact, there are dozens of places of worry where there are al Qaeda cells around the world."

Obama, who cut his vacation short, plans to hold an inter-agency meeting Tuesday to discuss missed intelligence signals and security failures in the case of the 23-year-old Nigerian national who attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound airplane on Christmas day. Yemen and future security measures are also likely to be the subjects of discussion.