Yemen shooting: Are US embassy officials in the Mideast secure?

The drive-by shooting that killed a Yemeni security officer assigned to the US Embassy in Sana bore the fingerprints of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has targeted the US in the past.

Hani Mohammed/AP/File
In this Thursday, Sept. 13, file photo, Yemenis protest in front of the US Embassy about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad, in Sanaa, Yemen. A drive-by shooting that killed a top Yemeni security official who worked at the US Embassy in Sanaa Thursday, Oct. 11, raises concern that Al Qaeda militants here are bouncing back and getting bolder after suffering defeats this year in US-Yemeni military offensive.

Concerns about the security of officials tied to US diplomatic missions in the Middle East – already acute – ratcheted up Thursday with the drive-by shooting of a Yemeni security officer assigned to the US Embassy in Sana.

Officials in Washington said the United States is working closely with Yemeni authorities to determine who killed Qassim Aklan, who had worked for more than a decade as a Yemeni liaison on security issues to the US Embassy in the Yemeni capital.

But the targeted shooting bore the fingerprints of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has stepped up a campaign of assassinations over recent months as the US has pursued government-sanctioned drone attacks on suspected AQAP targets.

“We are coordinating closely with the Yemeni authorities to investigate this attack and to help bring those responsible to justice,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

AQAP previously has attempted terrorist attacks targeting the US – the foiled Christmas Day 2009 shoe bomber and October 2010 package bombs destined for a Chicago synagogue are two examples – and its successful military operations in Yemen have prompted some officials and terrorism experts to consider it Al Qaeda’s most threatening regional “franchise.”

The Sept. 11 deadly firebombing of the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the takeover of northern Mali in August by Islamist radicals have shifted some attention to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM. The North African wing of Al Qaeda is thought to have had some degree of influence or even involvement in both of those events.

But even as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is seen as having suffered setbacks, American counterterrorism experts still generally consider AQAP to be the most active Al Qaeda affiliate. The Yemeni military took back a number of southern villages from AQAP militants earlier this year, and the US has continued to strike AQAP targets with the approval of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Haddi.

Recent actions either claimed by AQAP or in which it is suspected of taking part have targeted Yemenis. Last month a senior Yemeni intelligence officer was killed in a drive-by shooting similar to the one that targeted Mr. Aklan, and over the past week at least six Yemeni soldiers have been kidnapped from their posts – their headless bodies subsequently dumped back near the sites of the kidnappings.

US officials did not provide any details of Aklan’s work at the embassy, other than to say he was an embassy employee focused on security issues.

But the State Department’s Ms. Nuland denied earlier reports that Aklan had been involved in the investigation of violent demonstrations at the US Embassy in Sana last month. According to Reuters, Yemeni officials had said Aklan was looking into the embassy attack sparked by a video produced in the US that ridicules Islam.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Nuland said it was not yet clear if Aklan was targeted because of his embassy employment.

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