Military and intelligence officials in Yemen said Wednesday they uncovered an al-Qaida plot to fire missiles at foreign embassies in the capital and to attack naval forces guarding international shipping in the Red Sea.
Details of the plot, which was reminiscent of the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 2000 that killed 17 American sailors, emerged as Yemen remains in a heightened state of alert that has seen the U.S. and British embassies evacuated and a new suspected U.S. drone strike that killed seven alleged militants from the terrorist group.
The discovery of the al-Qaida plot prompted the Defense Ministry to step up security around the strategic Bab el-Mandeb waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Officials banning speedboats or fishing vessels from the area, and military forces have been ordered to shoot to kill anybody who arouses suspicion or refuses to identify themselves.
Defense Minister Minister Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed visited the area Sunday and urged the forces, known as Battalion 117, to stay on high alert for possible suicide attacks, according to officials who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
An estimated 3.5 million barrels of oil passed daily in 2010 through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, increasing the strategic importance of impoverished Yemen, which itself has only a relatively small production of oil and natural gas. Revenue from oil and gas production is declining, worsening Yemen's ability to provide social services.
The militants from the terrorist group's Yemeni branch — known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — also were said to be plotting to use long-range missiles to target embassies and diplomats' residences, or try to take foreigners as hostages, the officials said.
Ahmed urged the forces to stay "on alert against any sabotage operations aiming at destabilizing the country," according to the officials.
Drastic security measures have been instituted across Sanaa, with multiple checkpoints set up, and tanks and other military vehicles guarding vital institutions.
In Sanaa, an AP reporter said a drone buzzed over the capital for hours during the day.
Residents speak of their fears about possible terrorist attacks, although life is going on as normal, with shoppers buying new clothes and food for the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
A Yemeni government spokesman claimed earlier Wednesday that it had foiled a separate plot to target the southern cities of Mukalla and Bawzeer, then send militants disguised as Yemeni troops to attack two nearby strategic oil ports on the Arabian Peninsula, government spokesman Rageh Badi said.
Badi said other al-Qaida militants would also try to sabotage oil pipelines to "create panic among Yemeni army and Yemeni security services." Pipelines in the lawless south have been repeatedly attacked by al-Qaida militants and armed tribesmen who maintain ties with the terrorist group.
Details of the plot were first reported by the BBC.
A Mideast official urged caution about the Yemeni government spokesman's assertion that the al-Qaida plan was to take over the Yemeni ports. The official said al-Qaida has long tried to target the oil industry, and kidnap foreign oil executives, but lacks the troop strength to overrun the oil facilities, which are ringed by Yemeni troops, or the equally well-defended port cities.
The Mideast official said the recent rise in drone strikes — five in 10 days — had been carefully coordinated with U.S. officials together with Yemeni action on the ground in response to the threat from the al-Qaida branch, which is considered the most active of the terrorist network.
A U.S. intelligence official would only confirm that the U.S. and Yemen coordinate all counterterrorist action. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the counterterrorism campaign publicly.
The description of the al-Qaida plots came a day after the U.S. and Britain evacuated staff due to a threat that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa. The Yemeni military officials did not link the al-Qaida plot described Wednesday to the U.S. decision last week to temporarily close its diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.
A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat told the AP that the closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major attack.
President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi met with military, security and intelligence officials in an emergency session late Tuesday and warned them that al-Qaida has infiltrated the security service, putting its militants in key positions as well as recruiting agents to work for the terrorist group, according to officials familiar with the discussions at the meeting. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The president described Yemen's security situation as "fragile," the officials said.
Hadi had outlined the al-Qaida strategies to President Barack Obama during a recent visit to Washington, vowing "to take drastic security measures to clamp down on al-Qaida and their hideouts to foil their plots," the officials said.
The terrorist group, however, is believed to have been infiltrated by informants who give the government the location and movements of al-Qaida elements.
Security officials and residents said the suspected U.S. drone strike killed seven suspected al-Qaida militants in Shabwa province in southern Yemen, setting two vehicles on fire. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Residents of the Markha region of Shabwa province said they saw several bodies in two burning cars. The residents also spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.
While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not confirm individual strikes or release information on how many have been carried out.
One of the infiltrations of al-Qaida led to the successful attack in November against Saeed al-Shihri, the group's No. 2 official in Yemen, after three unsuccessful strikes. The Saudi-born militant was released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay after nearly six years and was critically injured in a drone strike and later died of his wounds, the militant group acknowledged.
The al-Qaidi branch in Yemen has been bolstering its operations for the past few years after key Saudi operatives fled there following a major crackdown in their homeland.
The group overran entire towns and villages in 2011, taking advantage of a security lapse during nationwide protests that eventually ousted Yemen's longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was able to regain control of the southern region, but al-Qaida militants continue to launch deadly attacks on security forces.
The militants have largely been driven into the mountains and countryside, and Yemeni intelligence officials say the current threat may be retaliation for that offensive.
Yemeni political analyst Maged al-Madhadqi said al-Qaida was dealt a blow during the offensive last summer but has always been able "to feed on the weakness of the state."
"The group has managed to preserve a solid organization and to recruit from the poor and seek hideouts and positions in many of Yemen's remote areas where the state control doesn't exist," he said.
Al-Madhadqi said drones have been buzzing overhead in Sanaa for three days.
"Drones are flying over the president's house. Never happened before," he said, adding that it was "infuriating people."
"All the talk about uncovering a plot appears to be unconvincing, given the lack of trust between people and security agencies. They didn't tell us what the plot was about exactly, who are those involved and what are the details. They just gave us a headline and left us wondering," he said.
"The extreme measures taken by the United States point to some grave threat. So far, we have not learned anything about it."
Tribal leader Mohammed Nasser al-Agr of the southern city of Shabwa, where gas pipelines were said to be targeted by al-Qaida, said that the U.S. drones have "significantly affected al-Qaida influence and role."
"The strikes were decisive and painful. ... They were successful. ... They were like the straw that broke the donkey's back."
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.