Western countries beef up security as US, UK, Germany and France cite intercepted communications of Al Qaeda in the area. Hakim Almasmari reports from Sanaa
Intelligence on Al Qaeda is wake-up call, says US
SANAA // Four western embassies in the Yemeni capital were closed yesterday amid heightened fears of an attack by Al Qaeda, as a US legislator warned that his country had intercepted communications among terrorists similar to what was seen before the September 11 attacks.
Britain, France, the United States and Germany shuttered their embassies in Sanaa for at least two days following the US warning of a possible attack by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's Yemeni and Saudi Arabian branch.
Calling the intercepted discussions "very reminiscent of what we saw pre-9/11", senator Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, described the threat on the NBC TV network as "the most serious threat" he had seen in recent years.
"This is a wake-up call," Pete King, who chairs a US House panel on counterterrorism and intelligence, was quoted as saying by the ABC network yesterday. He said the threat had been "specific as to how enormous it was going to be and also that certain dates were given".
"Al Qaeda is in many ways stronger than it was before September 11 because it has mutated and it's spread in dramatically different locations. And Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most deadly of all the Al Qaeda affiliates," he said.
Security was heightened in the Yemeni capital yesterday, though life in Sanaa continued as normal for most residents.
Special forces with armoured personnel carriers were stationed near western embassies and deployed on main roads. Searches of vehicles at checkpoints were more rigorous.
But residents said the security threat was exaggerated.
"From what we were hearing, we all thought Yemen would be under attack today. It's a quiet day and people are preparing themselves for Eid," said Mohammed Hashem Allanah, an accountant who was out shopping with his family during rush hour.
A Yemeni security officer posted near the US embassy said stepped-up security measures had been in place for a year.
"Attacks against the British and American embassies are always possible, so we are cautious on a daily basis," said Abdullah Abdul Nasser, a guard at one of the checkpoints near the US embassy. "But today we are extra cautious because of the extra threat."
Yemeni security forces were also given orders by the interior ministry to stay on high alert as the Eid holiday approaches.
US policymakers have declined to elaborate on the specifics of the intelligence they had obtained regarding a possible attack. But 21 US foreign missions across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia were closed yesterday as a precaution. On Friday, the US state department issued a global travel warning to its citizens of the possibility of an attack between now and the end of August.
A congressman, Adam Schiff, who sits on the house intelligence committee, told CNN yesterday that the "breadth" of the closures suggested US authorities were concerned about a repeat of last year's riots and attacks at multiple embassies, including the assault at the mission in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
A recent series of prison breaks in the region was also worrisome, he said.
"There has to be a lot of concern as well with the recent prison breaks in Libya, Iraq and elsewhere, where a lot of Al Qaeda figures were released," Mr Schiff said. "So you have a lot things coming together, including the significance of the end of Ramadan, that would raise our concern."
The last major Al Qaeda operation in Yemen was in May last year, when Ansar Al Sharia, a Yemeni group affiliated with AQAP, claimed responsibility for an attack that killed more than 100 soldiers.
The United States has targeted alleged terrorists in Yemen with drone strikes in recent years, including a strike last month that killed Al Qaeda's second-in-command Saeed Al Shihri.
The increased security came as Yemen was holding a national dialogue aimed at resolving long-standing political tensions - part of a Gulf Cooperation Council-orchestrated transition that began in response to Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011.
A senior official in the office of Yemen's prime minister, Mohammed Basindawa, said the national dialogue would aim to ensure that militant groups did not halt the country's progress in the long run.
"Militants have been trying to weaken the government and regain control of areas they lost, but the country is different today and that is no longer possible," the official said.
"Earlier in the year the president called on Al Qaeda to lay down arms and use dialogue instead of force to convey their message, and this door is still open," he said.
* With additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press