Yesterday in Yemen

The closure of 20 embassies means US intelligence is once again in the spotlight


For all the information progressively released in recent days by the US administration, the situation in and around Yemen still raises far more questions than it offers answers. First, the US announced the closure of 20 embassies worldwide, citing a major terrorist threat. Then it revealed that it had intercepted communications between the leaders of al-Qa’ida in Yemen and Pakistan. Most recently Washington disclosed that the attacks it hoped to thwart related to the sabotage of major energy installations in and around Yemen. Yesterday the capital, Sana’a, was in lockdown, with security forces stationed around government offices, foreign missions and the airport.

The simplest explanation is that US intelligence got wind of a major atrocity in the making, warned its allies – who also withdrew their diplomats from Yemen – and released sufficient information to deter the would-be perpetrators. The existence of a plot is not implausible; Yemen’s military recently launched an offensive in an attempt to block the inroads being made by al-Qa’ida, which might suggest a motive. Nor is the timing – in the last, often tense, days of Ramadan.

Yet other questions lurk in the background. The death of Osama bin Laden was hailed as spelling the end of al-Qa’ida. Is it back? Or is the US reviving a necessary bogey as a pretext for stationing some special forces in Yemen? Then again, it is convenient, to say the least, for US intelligence to be able to claim a success so soon after the revelations about the vast reach of its electronic surveillance activity, courtesy of the whistleblower, Ed Snowden. And this is the nub of the problem: if the threat emanating from Yemen is genuine, it is unfortunate that there are also some equally genuine reasons for scepticism.

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