WASHINGTON – A suspected U.S. drone strike in Yemen — the fourth reported in the last 10 days — killed four alleged Al Qaeda members Tuesday, as the U.S. and British governments evacuated their embassies because of intelligence suggesting a possible terrorist attack.
A drone-launched missile struck a vehicle in Marib province, east of the Yemeni capital, Sana, killing the four militants, according to the Yemen Post, a privately-owned English language newspaper. A second strike targeted a "militant hideout," the paper said, citing local security officials.
But the attacks did not hit any of the 25 suspected terrorists named on a list released Monday by the Yemeni government, according to a Yemeni official who was not authorized to be quoted.
The Yemeni government is “deeply disappointed in the U.S. decision to evacuate embassy staff,” the official said. “It plays into the hands of Al Qaeda, and it’s going to hurt our economy.”
In a statement Tuesday, the State Department announced that non-essential U.S. government employees would depart Yemen “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks.”
The evacuation order follows several days of rising U.S. concern after the National Security Agency intercepted communications between Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in Pakistan and the top Al Qaeda figure in Yemen, Nasser Wuhayshi, over apparent plans to launch an operation as soon as last Sunday.
That intelligence led to the Obama administration’s decision to temporarily close more than two dozen U.S. diplomatic facilities, mostly in the Arab world, and a worldwide travel warning to Americans. About 19 diplomatic posts are still closed.
The British Foreign Office separately announced that its embassy staff in Yemen had been temporarily withdrawn because of increased security concerns.
"There is a high threat from terrorism throughout Yemen,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. “Due to increased security concerns, all staff in the British Embassy have been temporarily withdrawn and the Embassy will remain closed until staff are able to return."
The Foreign Office also advised against all travel to Yemen as long as "the situation remains volatile with continuing unrest and violent clashes."
Some analysts doubt the ability of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen affiliate is known, to mount a successful terrorist operation outside the country.
Anna Boyd, an analyst for global consultancy IHS Country Risk, said the group’s “operational network is weak” after repeated counter-terrorism operations by U.S., Saudi and other intelligence services.
“Its ability to recruit foreign operatives capable of international travel has diminished since the deaths of its English language propagandists Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan,” two American members of Al Qaeda who were killed in a CIA drone strike in September 2011. “We assess it would be difficult for the group to mount an attack on a hard target like an embassy anywhere other than in Yemen, where its core capability is focused and where the risk is severe.”
The Yemeni government this week offered rewards of 5 million Yemeni Rials — about $23,000 — for information leading to the capture of 25 “most wanted terrorists” who are "planning to carry out operations in the capital," Sana and provincial cities. The government said it “has taken all necessary precautions to secure diplomatic facilities, vital installations and strategic assets.”