Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) — Yemen’s government said it uncovered an al-Qaeda plot to seize port facilities in the volatile southeastern province of Hadramut after the U.S. and Britain urged their nationals to leave the country.
Islamic militants were prevented from attacking the al- Dhabah oil export terminal, where foreign nationals were working, Rajeh Badi, adviser to Yemen’s Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Basindwah, said today in a telephone interview. They had also planned to seize the port city of Mukalla in Hadramut and attack a liquefied natural gas installation in Shabwah province, he said.
Yemen, where popular unrest in 2011 led to the toppling of President Ali Abdullah Saleh as ruler of the poorest country in the Middle East, has struggled to contain the threat from Islamic militants even with U.S. military assistance. The U.S., Britain, France and other countries have closed their embassies in Yemen following an unspecified threat to personnel.
The mountainous country, described by the Central Intelligence Agency factbook as mostly desert, has become a battleground against al-Qaeda militants planning attacks on Western targets and on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil supplier. “Concerns remain high about other plots and plans by al-Qaeda,” Badi said.
The U.S. has responded to the al-Qaeda plot by stepping up attacks by missile-armed drone aircraft, the Washington Post reported yesterday. At least seven of the group’s militants died in a drone strike today in the southeastern province of Shabwah, Barakish news website reported, while an air strike yesterday in Marib province killed four suspected al-Qaeda members, the state-run Saba news agency reported.
On Aug. 4, the Obama administration shut 22 embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia after intercepting a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as al-Qaeda chief in Pakistan, to the head of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch, Nasir al-Wuhayshi.
The U.S. flew government personnel out of Yemen and urged other Americans to leave immediately after the interception of communications about a planned al-Qaeda attack heightened security concerns in the Arabian Peninsula country. Britain removed its Yemen-based personnel and advised its nationals to leave, as did the U.S.
France extended the closure of its embassy in Sana’a through “at least” Aug. 11 and reduced its diplomatic presence to the “strict minimum necessary,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said in response to an e-mailed question today. The embassy had initially been closed through today.
Across Sana’a, the government has boosted security around government buildings and embassies. Security checkpoints have been set up and soldiers in armored vehicles are patrolling the streets.
“The situation in Yemen is continuously bad because of the inability of the central government to control any part of the country,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. “Within al-Qaeda military doctrine, attacking energy infrastructure, such as pipelines or ports, is seen as a potent tool. It is a major part of their doctrine.”
Al-Qaeda-linked militants have hindered economic recovery in the country by targeting energy infrastructure, including a Yemen LNG Co. supply pipeline running to its plants in the port of Balhaf. Crude production has also slowed, with repeated attacks on the Marib oil pipeline.
The country’s economy may grow 4.4 percent this year from 0.1 percent in 2012, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. Gross domestic product contracted 10.5 percent in 2011 amid the uprising that ended Saleh’s presidency.
Last September, protesters in Sana’a breached the U.S. embassy compound’s security perimeter following the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three colleagues in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Sept. 11.
– Mohammed Hatem and Glen Carey, Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.