By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 3, 2010; 10:45 AM
SANAA, Yemen --The United States and Britain shut down their embassies in Yemen on Sunday citing potential but unspecified threats from the al-Qaeda branch linked to the plot to bomb an American airliner on Christmas Day.
The closings came as both nations signaled they would play a more active role in combating terrorism and Islamic radicalization in Yemen. The United States announced it would dramatically step up aid, more than doubling its counterterrorism assistance to Yemen this year.
The embassy shutdowns were the latest indication of a growing confrontation between Western powers and the once little known al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, who claimed responsibility for training and equipping Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest with chemical explosives sewn into his underwear.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Saturday to express U.S. support for the fight against al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula.
Britain has announced it would host a Jan. 28 summit in London to discuss ways to combat radicalization in Yemen and provide long-term development assistance to the Middle East nation, the region's poorest. .
A U.S. embassy official declined to provide details of the threat, citing security concerns, or say for how long the embassy would remain closed. Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that he spoke with the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, Steve Seche, "early this morning and last night, looked at the intelligence that's available as far as the plans for al-Qaeda to carry out attacks in Sanaa -- possibly against our embassy, possibly against U.S. personnel, decided it was the prudent thing to do to shut the embassy. But we're working very closely with the Yemeni authorities to address the threat that is out there."
In a Dec. 31 message to U.S. citizens in Yemen, the embassy encouraged American to "maintain a high level of vigilance." It noted that al-Qaeda has stated that the attempted bombing was in response to "American interference in Yemen" and had characterized Westerners working in embassies and elsewhere as "unbelievers" and "crusaders.
A British Foreign Office spokeswoman in London said its embassy was closed for security reasons. She said officials would decide later whether the embassy would reopen Monday.
The U.S. Embassy has been targeted numerous times and has closed several times in the face of threats. Heavily armed al-Qaeda gunmen attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sept. 2008 with a car bomb and massive gunfire, killing 16 people, including a U.S. citizen.
The United States is providing intelligence, training and equipment to Yemen's security forces to combat al-Qaeda militants. President Obama said for the first time Saturday that Abdulmutallab was acting under orders from al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula which "trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America."
Obama said that he had "made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government" and work "with them to strike al-Qaeda terrorists."
Brennan said that al-Qaeda has several hundred members in Yemen. "And they're grown in strength. That's why, from the very first day of this administration, we've been focused on Yemen," he said. "I've traveled out to Yemen twice -- talked to President Saleh, in fact, just this past week. We're continuing this dialogue. We've provided equipment, training -- we're cooperating very closely. So this is something we've known about for awhile. We're determined to destroy al-Qaeda -- whether it's in Pakistan, Afghanistan or in Yemen. We will get there."
Yemen, the birthplace of Osama bin Laden's father and the site of the USS Cole bombing in 2000 that killed 17 American sailors, is struggling with numerous challenges that threaten to transform it into a failed state.
The weak central government has little control over vast lawless areas that provide an ideal haven and recruiting ground for al-Qaeda. Besides militants, the government is confronted with a civil war in the north and a separatist movement in the south that is stretching its resources.