In the wake of American warnings about al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda "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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda'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.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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