NAIROBI – The State Department on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of much of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and urged all Americans to leave the country after an al-Qaida threat that triggered the shutdown of diplomatic outposts across the Muslim world and Africa.
On the same day that Air Force aircraft were flying Americans out of Yemen, a suspected U.S. drone targeted a moving car in the impoverished nations Marib province, killing four alleged al-Qaida militants, according to a Yemeni security official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It was the fourth drone attack targeting leaders of the group in less than two weeks. Yemeni officials told the Associated Press that one of the dead is believed to be Saleh Jouti, a senior al-Qaida member.
The State Department said in a global travel alert that all non-emergency U.S. government personnel would be evacuated due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks. It described an extremely high security threat level in Yemen and advised U.S. citizens to leave immediately.
Military officials did not specify how many U.S. citizens were flown out of the country or where they were taken. The Pentagon said it was keeping an undisclosed number of military personnel in Yemen to support the U.S. Embassy and monitor the security situation.
Residents in the capital reported seeing and hearing a low-flying aircraft that many believed to be a U.S. drone or some form of surveillance plane.
On Sunday, the United States said it was closing 19 embassies and consulates – including missions in North Africa, the Middle East, East Africa and Bangladesh – until this Saturday.
The highly unusual shutdowns were a result of intercepted communication between al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror networks Yemen branch.
In one communication, al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as al-Qaidas leader, gave orders to al-Wuhayshi to stage an attack, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Al-Wuhayshi is thought to be in Yemen and al-Zawahri in Pakistan, said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University professor and terrorist expert.
Its very worrisome because al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the most effective and threatening affiliate, Hoffman said. So now the leader of the most consequential affiliate has an intimate command role in the overall organization. From Zawahris point of view, theres no better exemplar of the Qaida brand than AQAP.
The presence of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has transformed Yemen into a key front line in the U.S.-led war on terror. A few dozen members of the U.S. Special Operations Forces have been stationed in Yemen since last year to train Yemeni counterterrorism forces and to help pinpoint targets for U.S. and Yemeni airstrikes against al-Qaida targets inside the country.
The U.S. military carries out drone strikes in Yemen from its base in the tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, while the CIA flies armed drones from a separate base in Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is of strategic importance to the United States because it borders Saudi Arabia, the worlds biggest oil exporter and a key U.S. ally, as well as vital oil shipping lanes. And the Navy deploys ships on a near-constant basis in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea, both of which border Yemen.
Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula has attempted to attack the United States on several occasions, including sending parcel bombs on flights into the country in 2010 and unsuccessfully trying to bomb an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day of 2009. The group was formed by the merger of the Yemen and Saudi Arabia al-Qaida branches in 2009.
A U.S.-backed Yemeni offensive, aided by Saudi Arabia, drove the group out of parts of southern Yemen last year. But the militants have retaliated by staging suicide attacks and killing senior government and military officials inside Yemen.
Al-Wuhayshi, once bin Ladens personal secretary, recently was elevated by al-Zawahri to the No. 2 position in all of al-Qaida, analysts say.
A U.S. drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American preacher who was one of the groups inspirational leaders. But the groups primary bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, continues to target U.S. and Western interests.