US will not reverse Middle East terror precautions in wake of foiled plot

Obama administration cautions that threat to western outposts has not subsided after Yemen claims it thwarted large-scale plot

The Obama administration cautioned on Wednesday that the terror threat to western outposts in the Middle East and Africa will not necessarily subside in the wake of Yemen's claim to have foiled a large-scale plot to attack an important port.

As details of the alleged plot emerged from the government in Sana'a, new US drone strikes reportedly killed seven alleged fighters of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa. Residents reported seeing two vehicles and several bodies on fire.

Rajeh Badi, press adviser to Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, said the plot involved dozens of fighters in Yemeni army uniforms storming the facilities on Sunday night, and holding them. Yemeni officials spoke of a plan to take control of the Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal, which is run by Canada, in the Mukallah region on the Arabian Sea.

Yet the US State Department said it would not reverse its decision on Tuesday to remove much of its personnel from the Sana'a embassy in what it termed an "ordered departure", nor to reopen the 19 diplomatic facilities it temporarily closed on Sunday throughout the Middle East and Africa in reaction to intelligence indicating an attack might be imminent. Britain and several other western countries followed suit.

"The embassies and consulates that we closed over the weekend will remain closed until Saturday, as we initially said," said Marie Harf, the State Department's deputy spokeswoman. "No plans for that to change at this time." The State Department pointed to AQAP as the likely culprit of any imminent plot.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Obama administration official indicated that the US did not believe the threat was necessarily over. "Don't assume that the foiled port plot is the same stream of threat reporting that we're tracking," the official said. "As we've said, we're concerned about attacks against US facilities or interests."

Citing official sources, several news organisations reported that the source of the current heightened terrorism fears was intercepted communications between AQAP leader Nasser al-Wuhayshi and overall al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Yemeni officials told the Associated Press they believe the motive for the planned attacks was retaliation for the killing of Wuhayshi's deputy, Said al-Shihri, who was critically wounded in a November drone strike and later died of his injuries. The US has launched 16 such drone strikes in Yemen in 2013.

The US response to the threat has triggered renewed criticism of the Obama adminstration's approach to Yemen, which is said to include tactics tried in Pakistan and Afghanistan but which are inappropriate to conditions in the Arab world's poorest and intensely tribal country.

"US efforts to decapitate the leadership of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula have resulted in the deaths of many civilians, yet there is no certainty as to who the targets really are," commented Christina Hellmich of Reading University. "The membership of AQAP remains unknown while the deaths worsen the problems for the US in the region, by supporting the political legitimacy of the jihadis as they struggle to establish a position in the contested state."

AQAP has attempted to mount several attacks on US soil, including a bid to bring down a passenger plane over Detroit in 2009 by a man wearing explosives in his underwear, and a failed plot to send bombs concealed in printers.

Earlier that year the group tried to assassinate the Saudi security chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, with a bomb that was concealed on the attacker's body.

The Sana'a government said this week that it was hunting 25 named AQAP operatives it suspects of planning attacks.

The BBC reported that the US is readying special operations forces on the ground in Yemen for a possible strike on AQAP targets. The US additionally has three warships near Yemen in the Gulf of Aden, the USS Kearsarge, San Antonio, and Carter Hall.


Spencer Ackerman in Washington and Ian Black, Middle east editor

The GuardianTramp

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