Yemeni leadership feared in al Qaeda’s sights

U.S. intelligence agencies are worried that al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen may attempt to topple the government of the poor Arab nation or assassinate its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in retaliation for U.S. involvement in recent strikes on al Qaeda targets in the country.

The U.S. and Britain closed their embassies in Yemen’s capital, San’a, on Sunday, citing fears of impending attacks on targets in the country, possibly including on the embassies. A Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a U.S. airliner is thought to have been ordered by an al Qaeda branch based in Yemen.

A U.S. intelligence official who spoke with The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity said, “We have a lot of different threat reporting, which is basically al Qaeda barracks chatter, the consistent theme that comes out in human intelligence and more sensitive sources is that they are going to hit something hard.”

The official, who did not speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the information, added, “They have called for a tribal rebellion against Saleh. The attack could be an assassination attempt on President Saleh. It could be a Western embassy or some other target in Yemen.”

A senior Yemeni government official expressed similar fears.

“There is a concern, and this is not the first time we have heard of this threat. [Al Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden himself has publicly threatened the leadership of Yemen in the past,” the official told The Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the subject matter is sensitive.

A statement on the U.S. Embassy’s Web site said, “The U.S. Embassy in San’a is closed today, January 3, 2010, in response to ongoing threats by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack American interests in Yemen.”

Spain also restricted access to its embassy in San’a.

In September 2008, al Qaeda launched a major attack on the U.S. Embassy using automatic weapons, car bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. The attackers could not breach the embassy compound but killed 10 Yemeni civilians and security forces, at the cost of six of their own men.

Yemen, the ancestral homeland of bin Laden, has been the scene of four other assaults on the U.S. Embassy since 2000. Its naval port of Aden also was the site of a successful suicide-bomb attack on the USS Cole, which blew a hole in the ship and killed 17 American sailors.

Speaking on CNN on Sunday, John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said he had received intelligence indicating that the al Qaeda branch planned “to carry out attacks in San’a, possibly against our embassy, possibly against U.S. personnel.”

The U.S. is worried about the spread of terrorism in Yemen, a U.S. ally and aid recipient, Mr. Brennan said, but doesn’t consider the country a second front with Afghanistan and Pakistan in the fight against terrorism.

As to whether U.S. troops might be sent to Yemen, Mr. Brennan replied: “We’re not talking about that at this point at all.” He pledged to provide the Yemeni government with “the wherewithal” to take down al Qaeda.

The U.S. and Britain have increased training and other forms of assistance to Yemen in fighting al Qaeda. The U.S. reportedly helped Yemen identify targets for air strikes last month.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi told state media that Yemen was exchanging information and training with foreign countries, but denied that Yemen had agreed to allow U.S. missiles and aircraft to strike al Qaeda targets in the country.

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