Some 75 non-essential staffers at the US embassy in Sanaa exited on a military plane. The plane, accompanied by a support aircraft, flew to the US air base in Ramstein, Germany. The withdrawal of staff came hours after an apparent US drone strike in Yemen killed four alleged Al-Qaeda militants and others civilians.
The Yemeni government, however, issued a strong response to the diplomatic withdrawal, saying it recognized the safety fears but that the pullout "serves the interests of the extremists. "Such a step "undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism," the foreign ministry in Sanaa said. Local authorities had "taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions," it stressed.
While the closures span cities across the Arab world, the focus of concern has been Yemen, where American forces are fighting a drone war against Al-Qaeda's powerful regional affiliate. US President Barack Obama, appearing on a late-night comedy show Tuesday, said his administration was taking "every precaution" but that Americans should not panic.
US ally Britain, meanwhile, announced the temporary withdrawal of all personnel from its embassy in Yemen, saying it would remain closed "until staff are able to return. Britain also issued a warning to ships operating in the pirate-plagued waters of the Gulf of Aden off Yemen. France and Germany have also closed their missions and other European countries have taken extra precautions. Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands advised their citizens to leave. In a separate incident, the US consulate in the Italian city of Milan was briefly evacuated over an apparently false bomb threat.
According to media reports, the trigger for the pullback came when US intelligence intercepted messages between Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al-Qaeda's Yemen offshoot, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The New York Times said Monday that last week's electronic communications revealed Zawahiri had ordered AQAP to carry out an attack as early as last Sunday.
AQAP is seen as the global Islamist militant network's most capable franchise following the decimation of Al-Qaeda's core leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years. The Yemen-based group has attempted several attacks on the United States, including a failed bid to bring down a passenger plane by a man wearing explosives in his underwear and another to send bombs concealed in printer cartridges.
The United States in turn has launched scores of drone strikes in Yemen, where the militant group thrives in vast, lawless areas largely outside the government's control. In some cases Yemeni civilians have paid the price in those attacks.
It does not appear that the drone program has slowed, and there has not been any additional transparency or accountability for the drone strikes that have occurred since President Barack Obama delivered his counterterrorism policy speech in May. The targeted assassinations have continued, and since the drone program is still classified, it is difficult to tell how the policy might have changed. In the past week, there were three drone attacks in Yemen, killing more than 15 civilians, mostly children and women.
Despite the fact that the Yemeni government did not allow the US to conduct random attacks in the country, though it has agreed to cooperate in the fight against al Qa'eda, drones attacks have been increased to curb what the US believes is a growing terror threat in Yemen. Washington believes that political chaos in Yemen has compromised its efforts to contain terrorists in Yemen. But US strategy may backfire.
United States is turning Yemen into another Pakistan and relatives of innocent drone-attack victims will seek to avenge the deaths and resort to terror. The killings will only increase the hatred locals have for the United States, and turn residents into al Qa'eda sympathizers. The United States must honour the lives of Yemenis and stop drone attacks.
How Washington can change Yemeni attitude against US? First, the United States needs to clearly and consistently articulate its long-term commitment to Yemen’s political, economic and social development—and then back that up with assistance programmes and public diplomacy that underscores that commitment. Second, the U.S. needs to return the Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo as soon as possible; for most Yemenis, Guantanamo represents a clear violation of human rights, since these men were never convicted of any crime yet have been held for years without due cause.
Third, the U.S. should cease the use of targeted assassinations in Yemen where there is any possibility of civilian casualties—this generates severe hostility toward the U.S. and provides fodder for extremist networks to gain sympathy among the local population. Fourth, the U.S. should remain actively engaged in supporting Yemen’s political transition and keeping democratic reform on track, but in a less public way; ultimately it needs to be a Yemeni-led process with Yemeni solutions.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit: AFP-Motorcycle hit by a drone attack in Shabwa province-Yemen