A U.S. drone strike reportedly killed seven alleged al-Qaeda members in Yemen Wednesday. The incident would be the fifth such strike in the country in the last two weeks, following a long period without drone activity. The recent strikes have apparently been in response to intelligence suggesting that al-Qaeda is planning an attack, which U.S. officials have cited as the reason for temporarily closing a number of embassies this week. Britain and France have also closed diplomatic posts.

In spite of the lengthy U.S. campaign against al-Qaeda, the terrorist network remains potent in some areas of Yemen:

The drone strike killed the militants in Shabwa province, setting two vehicles on fire, security officials said. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Residents in the province’s Markha area, who also declined to be identified, fearing retaliation, said they saw several bodies on fire in two burning cars.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press reporter in Sanaa said a drone has been buzzing overhead for most of the day. Authorities have set up checkpoints across Sanaa, searching cars and individuals. Top government officials, along with military and security commanders, were told to stay vigilant and limit their movements. . . .

The Yemeni army has surrounded foreign installations, government offices and the airport with tanks and troops in Sanaa as well as the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula.

The terror network’s Yemeni offshoot, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, has been bolstering its operations in Yemen over 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.

Associated Press

U.S. officials are unable to say whether the recent strikes have been successful:

The officials said the revived drone campaign — with four strikes in rapid succession — is directly related to intelligence indicating that al-Qaeda’s leader has urged the group’s Yemen affiliate to attack Western targets.

The officials said it is not clear whether the most recent attacks have suppressed the danger, acknowledging that there is no indication that senior al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen have been killed. The latest strike, in southern Yemen on Wednesday, killed seven alleged militants, the Associated Press reported. A strike on Tuesday reportedly killed four militants in the impoverished nation’s Marib province, a Yemeni security official said.

Although the BBC reported Wednesday that the terror plot has been disrupted,citing statements by Yemeni government officials, that assertion could not be independently confirmed.

“It’s too early to tell whether we’ve actually disrupted anything,” a senior U.S. official said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The official described the renewed air assault as part of a coordinated response to intelligence that has alarmed counterterrorism officials but lacks specific details about what al-Qaeda may target or when.

“What the U.S. government is trying to do here is to buy time,” the official added.

The State Department underlined that approach on Tuesday, announcing that it had ordered the evacuation of much of the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and urged all Americans to leave the country immediately.

In a global travel alert, the State Department said that all non-emergency U.S. government personnel would be removed “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks.” It described an “extremely high” security threat level in Yemen.

Greg Miller, Anne Gearan, and Sudarsan Raghavan

The terrorist network’s Yemeni cell might have become more dangerous than al-Qaeda’s weakened leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan:

When the Sept. 11, 2001, plot was hatched, Nasir al-Wuhayshi was serving as Osama bin Laden’s personal assistant in Afghanistan. A half-decade later, after a daring break from a Yemeni prison, Wuhayshi became the architect of the al-

Qaeda affiliate that experts say poses the biggest threat to the United States.

Yet the man at the heart of a terrorism alert that has shut down U.S. embassies in the Muslim world and elsewhere has managed to keep a strikingly low profile in the West. That is likely to change, experts say, as Wuhayshi uses his growing stature to urge the loose network of cells that subscribe to al-Qaeda’s ideology to place greater emphasis on planning attacks on the West, rather than focusing on domestic enemies.

U.S. officials have stressed that much of al-Qaeda, particularly its core in Pakistan, has been severely weakened by a prolonged campaign of drone strikes. In Yemen, drone strikes killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric whose propaganda inspired other jihadis, in 2011, as well as Wuhayshi’s deputy, Said Ali al-Shihri, this year.

Still, the haste with which U.S. officials have responded to the latest threat, evacuating diplomats and aid workers from Yemen aboard military aircraft, underscores how menacing Wuhayshi’s group — known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — has become.

“He is among the most important individuals in terms of strategy,” said Rita Katz, the director of SITE Intelligence, a Bethesda-based group that tracks extremist organizations. “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula very quickly became one of the most prominent affiliates.”

Ernesto Londoño

According to one interpretation, reported communications between Wuhayshi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s chief, reveal tensions within the network:

Something to keep in mind about al-Qaeda and its affiliates is that they’re separated by thousands of miles, not to mention differing priorities, personnel and, potentially, missions and ideologies. Especially now that Osama bin Laden is gone, there’s not quite as much tying them all together. Zawahiri is ostensibly in charge of all of those affiliates, to some degree. But [terrorism analyst Clint] Watts suggests that the group structure may be fracturing, and with it the ability of Zawahiri and “al-Qaeda Central” to lead.

In this theory, the Yemen plot would be a way for Zawahiri to reassert his leadership and to revitalize the part of the al-Qaeda network over which he has the most control. That could be about more than just Zawahiri jockeying for more of a personal role: It could also be about holding together the broader al-Qaeda network, which has always had infighting but may actually be on the verge of splitting in two. . . .

For Zawahiri, then, perhaps reinvigorating the Yemen-based AQAP as the flagship brand with a spectacular attack might help to balance out this division and could grant him greater legitimacy as al-Qaeda’s preeminent leader, perhaps preventing a split. In such a physically dispersed organization unified largely by ideology, surely perception and prestige matter a great deal in who decides to follow whom.

For Zawahiri, merely the appearance of ordering a big operation could help him with internal al-Qaeda politics. “Now the leader of the most consequential affiliate has an intimate command role in the overall organization,” terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman told the Post. “From Zawahiri’s point of view, there’s no better exemplar of the Qaeda brand than AQAP.”

Max Fisher

Visit this page for a map of where U.S. embassies have been closed.

As terror threats and embassy closings come into focus in the Middle East, Nia-Malika Henderson talks to former Ambassador Ryan Crocker about the challenges in the region. (The Washington Post)