The U.S. and Britain closed their embassies in Yemen on Sunday in the face of al-Qaida threats, after both countries announced an increase in aid to the government to fight the terror group linked to the failed attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas.
The confrontation with al-Qaida's offshoot in Yemen has gained new urgency since the 23-year-old Nigerian accused in the attack, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, told American investigators he received training and instructions from the group's operatives in Yemen. President Barack Obama said Saturday that the al-Qaida offshoot was behind the attempt.
The White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said the American Embassy, which was attacked twice in 2008, was shut Sunday because of an "active" al-Qaida threat. A statement on the embassy's Web site announcing the closure cited "ongoing threats" from the terror group and did not say how long it would remain closed.
In London, Britain's Foreign Office said its embassy was closed for security reasons. It said officials would decide later whether to reopen it on Monday.
The closure comes as Washington is dramatically stepping up aid to Yemen to fight al-Qaida, which has built up strongholds in remote parts of the impoverished, mountainous nation where government control outside the capital is weak.
Over the weekend, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. general who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, announced that Washington this year will more than double the $67 million in counterterrorism aid that it provided Yemen in 2009. On Saturday, Petraeus met with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to discuss coordination in the fight against al-Qaida.
Britain announced Sunday that Washington and London will back the creation of a new counterterrorism police unit in Yemen. Britain will also host a high-level international conference Jan. 28 to hammer out an international strategy to counter radicalization in Yemen.
The U.S. also provided intelligence and other help to back two Yemeni air and ground assaults on al-Qaida hideouts last month, reported to have killed more than 60 people. Yemeni authorities said more than 30 suspected militants were among the dead.
The U.S. has increasingly provided intelligence, surveillance and training to Yemeni forces during the past year, and has provided some firepower, a senior U.S. defense official has said. Some of that assistance may be through the expanded use of unmanned drones, and the U.S. is providing funding to Yemen for helicopters and other equipment. Officials, however, say there are no U.S. ground forces or fighter aircraft in Yemen.
On Thursday, the embassy sent a notice to Americans in Yemen urging them to be vigilant about security. and announced the increased counterterrorism aid.
Yemeni security officials said over the weekend that the country had deployed several hundred extra troops to Marib and Jouf, two mountainous eastern provinces that are al-Qaida's main strongholds in the country and where Abdulmutallab may have visited. U.S. and Yemeni investigators have been trying to track Abdulmutallab's steps in Yemen, which he visited from August until Dec. 7. He was there ostensibly to study Arabic in San'a, but he disappeared for much of that time.
Al-Qaida has killed a number of top security officials in outlying provinces in recent months, underscoring Yemeni government's lack of control over the country. Tribes hold sway in the region, and many of them are discontented with the central government and have given refuge to al-Qaida fighters, both Yemenis and other Arabs coming from Saudi Arabia or war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden and the site of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, has a weak central government whose authority does not extend far beyond the capital San'a. In addition to battling al-Qaida fighters, it also faces two separate internal rebellions in the north and south.
Located at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, Yemen straddles a strategic maritime crossroads at the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the access point to the Suez Canal. Across the Gulf is Somalia, an even more tumultuous nation where the U.S. has said al-Qaida militants have been increasing their activity. Yemen also borders Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil producer.
There have been a spate of assaults on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and it has closed several times over past threats. In an attack in September 2008, gunmen and two vehicles packed with explosives attacked the U.S. Embassy, killing 19 people including an 18-year-old American woman and six militants. None of those killed or wounded were U.S. diplomats or embassy employees. Al-Qaida in Yemen claimed responsibility.
In March 2003, two people were shot dead and dozens more are wounded as police clash with demonstrators trying to storm the embassy. In March 2008, three mortars missed the U.S. Embassy and crashed into a high school for girls nearby, killing a security guard
Last January, gunmen in a car exchanged fire with police at a checkpoint near the embassy, hours after the embassy received threats of a possible attack by al-Qaida. Nobody was injured.
As recently as July, security was upgraded in San'a after intelligence reports warned of attacks planned against the U.S. Embassy.
In Washington, the State Department had no immediate comment on the embassy closure.