By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 18, 2008
SANAA, Yemen, Sept. 17 -- Attackers used vehicle bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons to mount a coordinated assault on the U.S. Embassy here Wednesday, leaving 10 guards and civilians dead outside the main gate but failing to breach the walled compound. No Americans were killed.
Yemeni officials and experts on al-Qaeda said an aggressive new generation of the group's leaders in Yemen was responsible for the assault, the deadliest attack on a U.S. target in this country since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Yemeni security forces have begun to pursue al-Qaeda fighters more vigorously this summer, following years of complaints by U.S. officials that the government was not fulfilling promises to counter the group.
"The attack on the U.S. Embassy was retaliation by al-Qaeda for the measures taken by the government to fight the terrorists," said Foreign Minister Abou Bakr al-Qurbi, according to a statement.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that the multiphased attack bore "all the hallmarks" of al-Qaeda and credited "the vigilance and the response" of Yemeni forces with preventing a more devastating assault. The government has received an average of nearly $40 million a year in U.S. economic and military aid since 2000.
The attack began at 9:15 a.m., when the sound of automatic weapons fire brought resident Yahyah Mousa to his roof overlooking the street outside the walled embassy compound.
"I saw soldiers shooting," before a jarring blast flung pieces of metal, glass and flesh onto the roof, Mousa said. As he and his family fled their home, at least five more explosions sounded behind them, amid heavy gunfire, Mousa said. The blasts sent plumes of black smoke rising over this medieval city of narrow towers and cramped streets.
McCormack, who provided the most detailed U.S. account of the assault, said the first vehicle exploded near a guard post. Cameras then recorded attackers taking positions nearby, until a second vehicle packed with explosives detonated near a sidewalk.
The use of two vehicle bombs -- one to breach the perimeter of a compound, a second to drive inside and explode -- is a tactic used by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. The explosions draped cars on the street in flames and smoke. People across much of this city of 1.5 million heard and felt the blasts.
Six Yemeni security officers, including an embassy guard, were killed in the attack, along with four civilians and six assailants. Embassy spokesman Ryan Gliha said there were no reports of injuries to Americans or major damage to the building.
A half-hour after the explosions, scores of soldiers cleared traffic to allow military ambulances to rush injured security officers to the city's military hospital. Helicopters circled the embassy. Automatic gunfire crackled.
The embassy has been the scene of at least four attacks since 2000. In March, three mortar rounds hit a girls' school next door, killing a school guard. The State Department later evacuated some personnel, allowing them to return only last month.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and violent strands of Islamist ideology, much of it imported from neighboring Saudi Arabia, have won followers in many tiers of society here.
The country has been a launchpad for al-Qaeda attacks on American interests at least since the assault on the USS Cole, a destroyer that was in Yemen for refueling. Seventeen sailors were killed.
Since then, the Bush administration has pushed President Ali Abdullah Saleh to do more against al-Qaeda. U.S. officials have frequently charged that the government allowed al-Qaeda to use Yemen as a base as long as the group's fighters launched no attacks in the country.
In 2007, after learning that the government had allowed Jamal al-Badawi, the organizer of the Cole attack, to go free on his own recognizance, the United States suspended $20 million in aid.
What the Bush administration saw as a "tacit non-aggression pact" between al-Qaeda in Yemen and Yemeni security forces began to break down about 2006, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, a researcher at Princeton University who has studied the group.
He said a new, less-compromising generation of al-Qaeda leaders emerged, many of them moving into action after escaping from a Yemeni prison that year, he said. They regard the older generation's nuanced relationship with Saleh's U.S.-allied government as "a treaty with tyrants," Johnsen said.
The new leaders have found followers among al-Qaeda fighters returning from Iraq. "The quieter it is in Iraq, the more inflamed it is here," as Yemeni fighters travel back and forth, said Nabil al-Sofee, a former spokesman for a Yemeni Islamist political party who is now an analyst.
One of the new leading figures was Hamza al-Quyati, born to a Yemeni family in Saudi Arabia, who helped found a splinter group known as the Soldiers' Brigade of Yemen.
Yemeni authorities blamed the group for a series of attacks that appeared to break whatever truce had existed between Yemeni forces and al-Qaeda. A 2007 suicide bombing killed seven Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers, and a subsequent attack killed two Belgian tourists. Those incidents, and the others this summer, have all but destroyed Yemen's economically crucial tourism industry.
Yemeni officials also blamed Quyati for the March mortar strike targeting the U.S. Embassy.
On July 25, Quyati's group took the fight to Yemeni security forces, launching an explosives-laden vehicle into a police station in the town of Sayun, killing one policeman.
Yemeni security forces retaliated Aug. 10, surrounding an al-Qaeda safe house in the eastern city of Tarim with tanks and killing five fighters inside, including Quyati.
U.S. and British officials, eager for a sign that Saleh's forces were becoming more engaged against al-Qaeda, have hailed the August attack. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael G. Vickers, visiting Sanaa on Sunday, gave Yemen rare public praise for its cooperation against al-Qaeda.
"Al-Qaeda ramped up their action . . . there's increasing pressure from the U.S. and Britain . . . and the Yemeni government is reacting to both of these things," Johnsen said.
Wednesday's attack shouldn't be seen as "indicating the strength or weakness of Qaeda" here, Sofee added. "It's about the strong conflict between security agencies and al-Qaeda now."
Since Aug. 19, the Soldiers' Brigade has issued promises to avenge Quyati's death, along with other hints of coming action, Johnsen said. "There were a lot of warning signs something like this was coming."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.