Jan. 4 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and U.K. closed their embassies in Yemen, citing threats of attacks, as officials voiced concern over al-Qaeda’s presence in what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a “failing state.”
White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said intelligence indicated that al-Qaeda plans attacks in Sana’a, the capital, “possibly against our embassy, possibly against U.S. personnel.” Shutting the embassy “was the prudent thing to do,” Brennan said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program.
The U.K. and U.S. are offering more security aid for Yemen, an impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation which is emerging as a base for al-Qaeda attacks as the terrorist group comes under pressure in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
U.K. Prime Minister Brown, who called Yemen a “failing state” in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday, will convene a Jan. 28 aid conference on Yemen in London at which the U.K. will seek to enlist support from oil- rich Gulf nations.
The Yemen branch of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Dec. 25 attack, in which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight with 278 passengers.
The failed attack prompted the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to issue new rules yesterday calling for “enhanced screening” of U.S.-bound air travelers who have passed through “countries of interest,” as well as requiring random checks on other international flights.
Other Attacks Feared
Brennan, President Barack Obama’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, said there are “probably several hundred” al-Qaeda members in Yemen and the U.S. worries they may be training other operatives for attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere similar to the one attempted by Abdulmutallab.
“We’re not going to take any chances with the lives of our diplomats and others” at the American embassy, Brennan said on “Fox News Sunday,” one of four Sunday news shows on which he appeared.
Asked if American troops might be sent to Yemen, Brennan said: “We’re not talking about that at this point at all.”
“The Yemeni government has demonstrated their willingness to take the fight to al-Qaeda,” Brennan said. “They’re willing to accept our support. We’re providing them everything that they’ve asked for.”
The embassy closures came a day after the top U.S. general in the region, David Petraeus, paid an unannounced visit to Yemen and pledged more assistance in combating terrorism.
Doubling U.S. Aid
Petraeus, in talks Jan. 2 in Sana’a with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support anti- terrorism efforts in Yemen, the Yemeni presidency said in a statement on its Web site. Petraeus told reporters in Baghdad on Jan. 1 that the U.S. in fiscal 2010 will almost double last year’s $70 million in security aid for Yemen.
“The Yemeni president and parliament take this threat very seriously,” Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East and Central Asia, said in Baghdad. “And that is of enormous significance, especially in a country facing such challenges.”
The London conference should concentrate on Yemen’s $11 billion development needs as well as anti-terrorism assistance, Deputy Minister for Planning and International Cooperation Hisham Sharaf said by phone from Sana’a yesterday.
A November 2006 donors’ conference in London led to pledges of $5.7 billion in aid for Yemen, almost half from Gulf nations, of which only $415 million has been received, Sharaf said.
“What is needed is a long-term aid strategy,” said Mustafa Alani, a regional security expert from the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “It would be wrong to focus only on security and counterterrorism.”
Yemen is also struggling to subdue both an insurgency by northern Shiite Muslim rebels that has drawn in neighboring Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, and a secessionist movement in the south. It is the poorest Arab nation and the government expects oil reserves that fund 70 percent of the budget to run out over the next decade.
Obama and Brown agreed to fund a police unit in Yemen to target terrorism and will support coast guard operations in the Arabian Peninsula nation, according to an e-mailed statement from the two governments yesterday.
Yemen said Dec. 24 it had foiled an al-Qaeda attack on the U.K. embassy a week earlier modeled on a twin suicide car bombing on the U.S. embassy in September 2008 that killed 17 people, including seven security guards and seven attackers.
Yemen has become an increasingly important base for al- Qaeda, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said on Dec. 29.
Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old, spent about three months in Yemen before leaving the country in early December. He told U.S. investigators that in Yemen he received training and the bomb- making materials he used in his attempt to blow up the airliner.
Brennan said U.S. intelligence agencies had “snippets” of information that were recognized “in hindsight” to be related to the failed attack. There was a “failure to integrate and piece together those bits of information,” he said.
The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kit Bond of Missouri, said the U.S. national security system failed.
“With all of the leads dangling out there, somebody screwed up by not reporting it,” said Bond. In addition, the airport screening “was a disaster,” he said.
The Intelligence Committee, one of several congressional panels planning investigations of the incident, will hold a hearing Jan. 21. Bond, appearing yesterday on Fox, said there are no grounds at this point to fire Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair or Leon Panetta, head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Other Republicans criticized the Democratic Obama administration’s anti-terrorism efforts.
“What we had in this case was a failure to act on a very credible report from the terrorist’s father that should, at the very least, have caused the State Department to revoke his visa,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said on “This Week.” Abdulmutallab’s father warned officials at the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that he was worried about his son’s extremist views, U.S. authorities said.
“Why wasn’t this individual’s visa revoked once we had such a credible report that he posed a threat?” Collins said.
She said it is “unacceptable” that there is no screening system in place to detect the explosive used in the Christmas Day incident, even eight years after would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid used “the exact same explosive.”
Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, said the U.S. “probably lost valuable information” by not viewing the attempted airline bombing as an act of war and the suspect as an enemy combatant.
“If we had treated this Christmas Day bomber as a terrorist, he would have immediately been interrogated military- style, rather than given the rights of an American and lawyers,” DeMint said on CNN.
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, also appearing on CNN, said it is “unfair and, frankly, political to take pot shots at the president as we respond to this failure in our systems that we’ve got to get fixed.”
--With assistance from Khaled Abdullah in Sana’a, Clementine Fletcher and Scott Hamilton in London, and Todd Shields in Washington. Editors: Bill Schmick, Ann Hughey.