In Yemen, a Massacre of Americans Is Averted

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A video-frame grab of the scene near the U.S. embassy in Yemen

If the attack had gone according to plan, it would have killed or wounded countless U.S. diplomats in the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden within a week of the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Although Wednesday's attack on the U.S. embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a left at least 16 people dead, the bravery and quick reaction of Yemeni security forces foiled what appeared to be a daring attempt to storm the embassy compound and kill everyone inside. One American of Yemeni origins was among the victims of the thwarted attack.

The brazen, sophisticated attack sparked fears in counterterrorism circles that al-Qaeda is gaining ground in Yemen, a key front in the Bush Administration's war on terror. A major purpose of the attack may have been to undermine Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih. Yemeni officials believe it may have come in retaliation for recent raids by Yemeni security forces against al-Qaeda in which senior militant Hamza al-Quaiti was killed. Militants had also threatened more attacks if Yemeni authorities fail to free detainees. Says Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee: "Al-Qaeda and the security forces are in a serious confrontation now. The government is cracking down, and al-Qaeda is retaliating."

A Yemeni source familiar with the initial government intelligence report on the incident told TIME that suspected militants tied to al-Qaeda were responsible and that it involved substantial weaponry, ample funding and elaborate planning. Officials believe the timing of the 9:15 a.m. attack was designed to catch security personnel off guard after their rising early for the predawn sohour meal before beginning the day's Ramadan fast. In an apparent effort to enter the embassy compound without firing a shot, the terrorists, officials believe, pulled up to the first perimeter checkpoint in a vehicle, impersonating uniformed Yemeni personnel.

The terrorists' aim, according to officials, was to use the vehicle as a bomb blitz to blow apart the heavily fortified front gate about 200 yd. away. According to the plan, a second vehicle loaded with commandos armed with automatic weapons and grenades would speed through the breach and enter the embassy's chancery building, located another 200 yd. inside the compound. Once they made it inside, says TIME's source, their plan was to kill all the diplomatic personnel they could find. "Had they made it inside," he says, "it would have been a disaster."

But the plan faltered at the first hurdle, when the Yemeni security guards refused the vehicle entry through the checkpoint. The militants then opened fire and detonated the bomb, which killed several guards and militants, eyewitnesses told journalists. The explosion set off a huge plume of black smoke over Sana'a as nervous U.S. diplomats, according to the source, headed for a specially designed secure room in the basement of the embassy building. One of the suicide bombers' arms was found later on a nearby street.

At that point, government sources say, the second vehicle raced past the carnage toward the embassy's front gate. Firing grenades and automatic weapons, the militants engaged Yemeni guards in a 20-min. battle but failed to penetrate the compound before all were killed. Yemeni officials said the casualties included six guards, six militants and four civilian bystanders.

The embassy raid is a sign that Yemen's war against jihadists is far from over. "It's like those scary movies when you kill one [monster] and it makes two more," says the TIME source. "It means we have to work harder, hit harder, be more alert, and hopefully we'll get rid of them." Some Yemeni officials privately criticize the Bush Administration for demanding better results while withholding substantial aid that could help the impoverished country be more effective in the fight. "The U.S. should provide more assistance, more equipment, more training," a former senior government official tells TIME. "The assistance is like a drip from a faucet."

U.S. officials, though, complain that while Yemen's government is a valuable ally against al-Qaeda, it has sometimes been too lax — for example, by sentencing hardened militants to short prison terms and freeing repatriated Guantánamo Bay detainees. Last May, an appeals court reduced from five to three years the prison sentence for Saleh al-Ammari, the Yemeni man who opened fire on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a in 2006. Still, U.S. officials acknowledge that the government faces a formidable challenge. The country is home to a large number of veterans of the anti-Soviet jihads in Afghanistan and the Iraq insurgency; local militants have links to powerful Yemeni tribes; the country's rugged terrain provides safe havens; and Yemen's gun-crazy population of 23 million is estimated to own anywhere between 6 million and 60 million firearms. Yemen also has a history of tolerating radical theology; an Islamic school in Sana'a once provided teaching to John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban captured in Afghanistan in 2001.

Yemen is also the site of one of al-Qaeda's first, albeit little-known, international operations: an attack on two hotels in the port of Aden in 1992 that was aimed at U.S. troops bound for Somalia. Two people died, but neither was American. Better known was the group's strike in 2000 on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden's harbor, killing 17 U.S. servicemen. Three months before 9/11, Yemeni authorities arrested eight people in a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sana'a. And only last March, there was a failed mortar attack on the embassy compound. Despite the deaths of Wednesday's attackers, the carnage at the embassy in Sana'a is a clear sign that al-Qaeda's deeds in Yemen are far from done.

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