Al Qaeda’s multi-blast assault on the US embassy in Sanaa was the direct product of the double game which Yemeni president Abdullah Saleh is playing.
While avowing his support for the US campaign against terror, he has allowed his associates to woo the Huthi Shiite rebels backed by Iran, including al Qaeda elements (See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 361 on Aug. 22, 2008: President Salah Offers Peace to pro-Iranian Rebels), as counterweights for the clique of generals who seek to oust him.
Salah’s unwillingness and inability to root out al Qaeda havens in the southeastern province of Hadhramaut, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home, has further enhanced al Qaeda’s strong standing in Yemen, unequaled since 2000, when its bombers blew up the USS Cole in Aden harbor and killed 19 American seamen.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that this presence has been swelled in recent months by a flood of fugitives from Iraq.
Hadhramaut on the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea has become hub and haven for al Qaeda operatives on the move. They come in, whether by smuggler boat or local air and shipping lines from Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt as well as from Iraq, Kuwait and across the border from Saudi Arabia.
In this remote corner, famous for its mud brick architecture, they recuperate undisturbed, get medical treatment, lay plans, find weapons and funds and freshen up their fake documentation for their next expeditions.
In many ways, the Yemeni president plays the same role as did Pervez Musharraf when he ruled Pakistan. As America’s avowed ally against terror, Salah earns support and economic assistance from Washington, while not letting go of his ties with al Qaeda.
Hadhramaut – an al Qaeda springboard for Middle East terror
A western intelligence source familiar with Hadhramaut (Hatzarmavet – court of death – in several Biblical references) describes the region as the same sort of asylum for al Qaeda as Pakistan’s Waziristan or Swat Valley for its Afghan operatives.
It poses just as much of a menace. Yet because it is off the beaten track of international theaters of war on terror, Hadhramaut went unnoticed until Wednesday, Sept. 17. Then, the massive assault on the US embassy in Sana’a suddenly riveted the attention of counter-intelligence agencies in the West and neighboring Saudi Arabia. They took a look at the concentration of dangerous and seasoned al Qaeda terrorists building up in Yemen within easy reach of strategic locations in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the world’s primary oil regions.
Al Qaeda’s method of operation in Sana’a strongly resembled its attack on the US consulate in Jeddah of Dec. 7, 2004.
Our counter-terror sources report that at 5 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 17, four hours before the attack, sniper and anti-tank RPG teams in Yemeni military uniforms perched on rooftops overlooking the wall surrounding the fortified US embassy.
Another group took up positions opposite the main gate which was guarded by Yemeni commandoes.
At 9:15 a.m., a vehicle painted in Yemeni army colors and insignia , approached the checkpoint outside the embassy and prepared to drive through. One of the Yemeni troops decided to stop the vehicle for a search. The terrorists in the car thereupon started shooting.
This was the signal for the rest of the Al Qaeda team to open up from the surrounding roofs; the snipers aimed for the embassy gate, while rockets were fired into the compound. At least four pierced embassy walls, starting a blaze.
The firefight lasted more than twenty minutes. Ten minutes after it began, a bomb car driven by a suicide killer pulled up. His task was to blow up the embassy gate and let the rest of the gang rush through the gap into the building.
A few minutes later, a second bomb car drew up. Its driver set off his explosives close by a wall to create a second gap in the embassy’s outer fortifications (exactly like the Jeddah consulate attack).
The Yemeni guards saved the embassy, but how did al Qaeda get so close?
The fierce resistance put up by the Yemeni commandoes defeated al Qaeda’s plan. Heavy casualties forced them to withdraw without achieving their goal. Six bodies were left behind, but the retreating jihadists are described as carrying more bodies with them and their wounded.
Had al Qaeda’s operatives succeeded in breaking through to the embassy building, they would have blown it up over the heads of the staff, which had taken shelter in the sealed, fortified bunker built under every US legation in the Arabian Peninsula and Middle East.
In the Jeddah assault, al Qaeda tacticians discovered that these bunkers cannot be quickly destroyed before help arrives for the beleaguered diplomats. In Sanaa, therefore, they brought gas canisters attached to explosives for blowing up the entire building.
The canisters were not used because the Yemeni guards were too quick for them. They were found abandoned after the incident.
US intelligence is now seeking answers to three questions:
1. How could a large contingent of al Qaeda terrorists, a strike force of 15 to 20 men supported by a similar number, get organized in the Yemeni capital and make its way to target unbeknownst to Yemen security and intelligence services?
2. Why did none of the American or Yemeni security officers posted at the embassy notice heavily armed terrorists taking up positions on rooftops around the building?
3. Why were no Yemeni reinforcements rushed to the aid of the beleaguered Yemeni guards during the entire battle? Why were no roadblocks set up to apprehend the attackers escaping the scene?
The answers could almost certainly be provided by President Abdallah Salah, if he wished.