Yemen said Wednesday it had foiled an al-Qaeda plot to storm a Western-run oil terminal and seize a port city, as a terror alert kept U.S. Middle East missions closed.
The jihadist network’s feared Yemeni affiliate planned to assault the Canadian-run Mina al-Dhaba oil terminal on the Arabian Sea coast and take staff hostage, including Western expatriates, government spokesman Rajeh Badi told AFP.
A nearby export facility for oil derivatives was also targeted, Badi said.
Qaeda also plotted to seize the nearby Hadramawt provincial capital Al-Mukalla, a port city of 100,000 people, and the Ghayl Bawazeer area to its north, where they briefly declared an Islamic emirate earlier this year.
“If they were to fail in seizing control of the facilities, the plan was to take foreign experts away as hostages,” Badi said.
The attack was planned for Monday, which coincided with the 27th day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and was the second day of a mass closure of U.S. missions across the Middle East and North Africa.
The plot was foiled around two days before its planned launch, Badi said.
Both Washington and London pulled diplomatic personnel out of Sanaa on Tuesday citing intelligence reports of an imminent attack by the Yemen-based Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The United States took the unusual step of closing some 25 diplomatic missions in the Muslim world Sunday, and then extending the closure for a week at 19 of them, in response to what it said was a credible and imminent threat of a major Qaeda attack.
The Netherlands late Wednesday became the latest Western power to close its embassy in Yemen, citing “information that several western countries are potential targets of an upcoming terrorist attack.”
An intercepted conference call between Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and top operatives was reportedly the trigger for the U.S. embassy closures.
More than 20 Qaeda operatives from across the globe were on the call, including representatives of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban and Qaeda in Iraq as well as AQAP, U.S. media reported.
In the call, Zawahiri is said to have named AQAP chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi as the operational controller of the group's affiliates throughout the Muslim world.
A lack of clarity about the wider threat, however, remains. Late Wednesday, a U.N. report said Zawahiri has struggled to unite Qaeda’s various factions though the group continues to pose a threat.
“A fragmented and weakened Qaeda has not been extinguished,” said the report, adding: “The reality of Qaeda’s diminished capabilities and limited appeal does not mean that the threat of Qaeda attacks has passed.”
This was later stressed by U.S. President Barack Obama, who told some 3,000 marines that while Qaeda’s top ranks had been “hammered,” “the end of the war in Afghanistan doesn’t mean the end of threats to our nation.”
While the closures span cities across the Arab world, the focus of concern has been Yemen, where Washington has been fighting a drone war against AQAP militants for several years.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that Washington’s embassy in Sanaa remained closed, “and we continue to evaluate the threats on a daily basis.”
Tribal sources said a U.S. drone killed seven suspected jihadists in Shabwa province, to the west of Hadramawt, on Wednesday, the second such strike in as many days.
The early-morning attack in the town of Nasab destroyed two vehicles, the sources said.
It was the fifth U.S. drone strike in Yemen since July 28. At least 24 suspected Qaeda militants have been killed.
Washington has launched scores of drone strikes in Yemen, where AQAP thrives in vast, lawless areas largely outside the government’s control.
In recent days, Yemeni authorities beefed up security in Sanaa, where they feared the attack would be launched.
But they responded angrily Tuesday to the withdrawal of Western diplomats, saying they acknowledged the safety fears but noting that the pullout “serves the interests of the extremists.”
“It undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism,” the foreign ministry said.
Yemen-based AQAP 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 intent of the foiled plot on oil facilities appears to have been similar to a spectacular January attack by Islamist militants on a gas plant deep in the Algerian desert.
Thirty-eight hostages died, all but one of them foreigners, along with 29 militants, in the four-day siege at the In Amenas plant, which was ended by the Algerian army.