Yemen: A More Sophisticated Attack

5 MINS READSep 17, 2008 | 18:03 GMT
A group called the Islamic Jihad in Yemen claimed responsibility for the Sept. 17 attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital. The sophistication of the attack indicates a marked increase in jihadist capabilities in Yemen, but U.S. Embassy security measures ensure that even attacks of this level will not penetrate the embassy's interior.
A group called the Islamic Jihad in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sept. 17. The group had issued a statement Sept. 16 demanding the release of prisoners and threatening to blow up the British, Saudi and UAE embassies if their demands were not met. There were no other reports of attacks in Sanaa besides that on the U.S. Embassy. The attack is the most sophisticated Islamist militant attack in Yemen in recent years and marks a significant increase in jihadist capabilities in the country. But U.S. Embassy security measures ensure that even attacks like this one will not penetrate the inner sanctum of an embassy. At approximately 9:15 a.m. local time, a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) detonated outside the embassy in an attempt to penetrate the reinforced steel gate. Shortly afterwards, armed assailants dressed as local police arrived and opened fire on the compound; masquerading as police most likely bought them time, as their uniforms probably caused confusion on the scene. Rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) explosions and gunfire continued for another 10-15 minutes before the assailants were subdued. The Yemeni Interior Ministry also reported that a man with a suicide vest was shot and killed before he could detonate outside the embassy walls. In all, 16 people died (local civilians, police and six attackers), but the embassy itself was not compromised. The well-coordinated attack marks a significant increase in capabilities by Islamist militants in Yemen, a trend that STRATFOR has been following for some time as al Qaeda fighters fleeing Iraq and Saudi Arabia have settled in more welcoming corners of the Middle East. In fact, dressing as police officers is a tactic that assailants in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have used. Acquiring weapons and materials has never been a problem in Yemen, as the country is awash in light weapons such as AK-47s and RPGs. In previous attacks on the U.S. Embassy and other Western interests in Sanaa, lone attackers or groups have fired automatic weapons or mortar rounds indiscriminately. But the Sept. 17 attack showed coordination among several different units of attackers — gunmen and suicide bombers. Furthermore, the tactics were similar to those used in other serious attacks on U.S. missions in Syria and Saudi Arabia: The attackers picked out the most vulnerable point in the embassies' defenses (the gates) and deployed a VBIED in an attempt to break through. This, along with the deployment of gunmen, shows that the assailants did their homework before staging their attack and most likely trained for the attack to get the timing down. But mounting a successful attack on a U.S. embassy requires more than the jihadists were able to muster. Since the 1983 attacks in Beirut, U.S. foreign missions around the world have been converting to the security standards set forth by the Inman Commission. These standards call for foreign missions to be designed and built to withstand the threats to U.S. assets in dangerous places. High blast walls prevent VBIEDs detonating on the street from damaging diplomatic structures. Standoff of at least 100 feet from the street further insulates embassies and consulates. And finally, the embassy buildings themselves are made from reinforced concrete and blast-resistant windows. The exterior of such a building cannot be breached with small arms, or even easily breached with explosives. Within the facility itself, there are concentric rings of security, including a haven to which staff can retreat when the situation outside becomes dangerous. In short, U.S. foreign missions are fortresses that are difficult to damage and even more difficult to storm. Considering all these security measures, even if the assailants in Sanaa had been able to breach the compound's walls with VBIEDs, the handful of armed gunmen likely would have been unable to do much. The embassy's standoff distance and armed U.S. guards on the grounds would have ensured that the gunmen were neutralized before they could have posed a serious threat to the actual embassy. A similar armed assault on a U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (in which the assailants actually stormed through the gates) was put down without those inside the embassy being harmed. Even though the Sanaa attack failed, the drastic increase in militants' capability shown in the attack indicates that a bad situation has become worse. Jihadist sympathizers within Yemen's security and intelligence agencies keep Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh limited in what he can do to combat the growing Islamist threat in the country. Saudi Arabia will also be watching the violence in Yemen closely — not only because the Saudi Embassy was threatened, but also because Riyadh has fought off an Islamist militancy of its own in recent years. The U.S. Embassy's strong fortifications will keep it safe for now, but there are scores of softer, sensitive targets in Yemen that would crumble under an attack like the one carried out today.

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