- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

UPDATED:

SAN’A, Yemen (AP) – A senior security official says at least 25 militants with suspected links to al Qaeda have been arrested in connection with Wednesday’s deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital. The Yemeni official says the 25 have been rounded up from various parts of Yemen over the past 24 hours and are being questioned by Yemeni and U.S. investigators.

The official spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The attack Wednesday killed 16 people but failed to breach the compound’s walls.

Susan Elbaneh, 18, a U.S. citizen from Lackawanna, N.Y., who was recently wed in Yemen in an arranged marriage, was killed along with her Yemeni husband as they stood outside the embassy, family members said Wednesday.

They were apparently there to do paperwork for the husband’s move to the U.S. when the attackers struck, said Elbaneh’s brother, Ahmed. Elbaneh’s family was gathering at her father Ali’s house Wednesday afternoon.

An audacious attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen on Wednesday demonstrates a renewed offensive capability by al Qaeda and may be the group’s premier operation for 2008, U.S. intelligence officials and specialists on the terrorist group said.

Yemen has a long history as a haven for al Qaeda and venue for attacks, beginning with the 2000 suicide ramming of the USS Cole. Over the past two years, the organization has regrouped in Pakistan´s tribal region and trained recruits from Western nations and Africa.

The identities of the attackers in the Yemeni capital of San’a were not clear, although a U.S. counterterrorism official said some of the assailants wore Yemeni military uniforms. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.

Sixteen people, including six of the assailants, died as the gunmen tried to break through the heavily guarded embassy’s multiple defenses. Suicide bombers in a vehicle made it through a first checkpoint and detonated explosives at a second concrete barrier, the Associated Press reported. Six Yemeni guards and four civilians, one of them a newlywed from New York, were among the dead.

Susan Elbaneh, 18, a U.S. citizen from Lackawanna, N.Y., who was recently wed in Yemen in an arranged marriage, was killed along with her Yemeni husband as they stood outside the embassy, family members said. They were apparently there to submit paperwork for the husband’s move to the U.S., said Mrs. Elbaneh’s brother Ahmed.

Two FBI agents who arrived to speak with family members at her father Ali’s house would not comment beyond saying they were there to talk to the family.

Relatives acknowledged, however, that Mrs. Elbaneh was related to Jaber Elbaneh, who is in custody in Yemen and faces U.S. charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. But they stressed that had nothing to do with Mrs. Elbaneh, saying she was an innocent victim of Wednesday’s attack.

Witnesses to the attack heard multiple explosions. SABA, the Yemeni state news agency, quoted an unidentified Interior Ministry official as saying that two suicide car bombs had been detonated. Victims included six Yemeni guards and four civilians, including Yemenis lining up for visas, the news agency said. At least seven civilians were wounded.

A U.S. official based in Afghanistan said the attack incorporated a strategy that militants also have used in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Armed gunmen have been the follow-up to the bombings to ensure maximum death and to ensure that the bombers follow through with the suicide attacks,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he holds a sensitive position.

A similar technique was used in 2004, when gunmen attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. No Americans were hurt in that assault, which was foiled by security measures and Saudi security forces.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday’s attack had “all the hallmarks of al Qaeda.” Security upgrades to the San’a embassy, combined with quick responses, saved American lives, he said.

With the investigation just beginning, U.S. officials said, they could not rule out suspicions that the attack was a precursor to others against U.S. targets.

“Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups remain intent on attacking U.S. interests at home and abroad, but that’s a general, long-standing desire,” the counterterrorism official said.

However, Bruce Riedel, a Middle East and counterterrorism specialist and former senior staffer on the White House National Security Council, told The Washington Times that this may have been al Qaeda’s primary attack for 2008.

“I suspect this was intended to be one of al Qaeda’s major attacks this year,” Mr. Riedel said. He noted that the massive attack occurred just after a new tape by al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri surfaced and was close to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“They were hoping for a significant attack at an American target outside Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said.

A group calling itself Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. A Defense Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, said that the group, not to be confused with a Palestinian organization of the same name, was probably a branch of al Qaeda.

Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said al Qaeda was put on the defensive after Sept. 11 but appears to be making a resurgence.

“This attack in Yemen shows they are starting to take the offense” again, Mr. Addicott said. “They view the struggle as one that has existed for hundreds of years and will continue on into the indefinite future. Thus, an attack in one place in time may or may not be indicative of a larger attack … but that possibility cannot be ruled out.”

Over the past year, U.S. defense and intelligence officials have noted a surge in recruitment by al Qaeda of operatives from Western nations and Africa. An August security report obtained by The Times that dealt with Afghanistan and the tribal region straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border warned that “U.S., British and German citizens” are training and operating there.

“These are serious concerns and we can’t rule out that they are being trained for attacks in the U.S. or Europe,” the U.S. official in Kabul said.

Yemen presents an easier venue for attack, Mr. Riedel said.

“Yemen has been the al Qaeda franchise that has been the most difficult to root out,” said Mr. Riedel, author of an upcoming book, “The Search for al Qaeda.” “We have been trying to break the al Qaeda operation there since the Cole bombing in 2000. We have landed significant blows but it keeps rising from the ashes.”

Mr. Riedel also said that the “government of Yemen has been a halfhearted partner in this,” arresting suspects and then letting them go after short jail times. There have also been prison breaks that Mr. Riedel said were probably inside jobs.

In 2003, 10 of 17 Yemenis arrested in the Cole bombing, which killed 17 Americans, escaped from jail. A prime suspect, Jamal al-Badawi, escaped in 2004 and was re-arrested last year under U.S. pressure.

The Yemeni government is reluctant to impose a harsh crackdown because it does not want to antagonize local tribes and Islamic groups, Mr. Riedel said. “Yemen is a pretty hard place to govern,” he added. “No government in San’a has had full control of the interior of the country.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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