Yemen Didn’t Really Foil a Terror Plot Yesterday

Dashiell Bennett, The Atlantic Wire
Aug. 8, 2013, 6:02 a.m.

NEW YORK — In the wake of Amer­ic­an warn­ings about al-Qaida ter­ror­ists in Ye­men, of­fi­cials in the Ar­a­bi­an coun­try claimed on Wed­nes­day to have thwarted a ma­jor ter­ror­ist plot on their oil fa­cil­it­ies. Now it turns out that wasn’t ex­actly true. A spokes­per­son for Prime Min­is­ter Mo­hammed Salem Basind­wa said earli­er in the day that a large group of al-Qaida mil­it­ants were plan­ning to seize and pos­sibly blow up a large oil ter­min­al in the province of Ha­d­ramout, and also use the at­tack to seize the south­ern cit­ies of Mukalla and Bawzeer. The claim was re­por­ted by every­one from Al Jaz­eera to The New York Times, but it didn’t take long for some ex­perts to ques­tion wheth­er the du­bi­ous re­ports about the at­tack were ac­tu­ally true.

Even the spokes­per­son for Ye­men’s em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton un­der­cut the story by tweet­ing that Al-Qaida in the Ar­a­bi­an Pen­in­sula “doesn’t have the man power nor the cap­ab­il­it­ies to cap­ture a city the size of Mukkala.” U.S. of­fi­cials also said that claim of thwart­ing a large at­tack may have been pre­ma­ture, even if Ha­d­ramout is a base of op­er­a­tions for Ye­men and small at­tacks on oil fa­cil­it­ies are quite com­mon (even among non-al-Qaida tribes­man.) The U.S. also stressed that it didn’t change their as­sess­ment of the lar­ger threat that promp­ted them to close the San­aa em­bassy and with­draw all non-es­sen­tial per­son­nel.

In the end, the of­fi­cial state me­dia out­let, SABA, fi­nally re­por­ted that there was no spe­cif­ic threat against the oil ter­min­al, ef­fect­ively un­der­min­ing what was be­ing touted as a ma­jor in­tel­li­gence vic­tory for Ye­men’s em­battled gov­ern­ment. There was also some push back on the idea of the al-Qaida “Le­gion of Doom” con­fer­ence call that sup­posedly tipped off the Amer­ic­ans to the lar­ger threat. That may just be ter­ror­ism ana­lysts over-think­ing the situ­ation, but some of the de­tails just seemed too im­plaus­ible (and too dif­fi­cult to check.)

While the Ye­meni dip­lo­mat is cor­rect that al-Qaida can’t con­trol a siz­able city in Ye­men (and they’ve tried sev­er­al times in the past), the gov­ern­ment in San­aa can’t con­trol large por­tions of its own coun­try either. They’ve had mixed suc­cess bat­tling al-Qaida’s grow­ing in­flu­ence, while sim­ul­tan­eously fight­ing against loc­al tribes who of­ten switch al­le­gi­ances in their own battles against the un­pop­u­lar cent­ral gov­ern­ment. That makes Ye­men a dif­fi­cult stra­tegic part­ner for the U.S., giv­ing them free reign to launch drone strikes — there have now been six in the last two weeks, which only gen­er­ates more hatred of the Amer­ic­ans — while not al­low­ing oth­er tac­tics that might be more pop­u­lar and use­ful to the Ye­meni people.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic Wire. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.