As violent protests against an obscure anti-Islamic film spread to Yemen, parts of the capital of Sanaa erupted, underscoring the continuing instability facing the country and laying bare simmering anti-American sentiments.
A number of Yemeni clerics, including Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a leading Sunni religious leader, called for the protests. Participants said they were initially planned as peaceful demonstrations, but as they escalated, some people attempted to lay siege to the US embassy, with some of them clearing the compound's outer security perimeter, despite the presence of Yemeni security forces. Some demonstrators burned cars and smashed the windows of security buildings as they set an American flag on fire.
Yemeni forces were eventually able to repel the attack, which failed to reach the main buildings of the embassy compound, but it took time to disperse the hundreds of demonstrators in the largely youthful crowd shouting defiant chants, vowing to sacrifice themselves to protect the honor of the prophet Muhammad and, in some cases, lobbing rocks at the Yemeni forces trying to hold them back. A tense standoff ensued between protesters and harried troops who launched tear gas and fired warning shots in the air in a scrambled attempt to disperse the crowd, which diminished by early afternoon.
At least 13 demonstrators were wounded and one was reported killed by a stray warning shot. An embassy spokesman confirmed that all members of their staff were “present and accounted for.”
The attack was a stunning security breach of the US embassy, considered one of the most secure buildings in the capital city. Security was tightened in the aftermath of two 2008 attacks on the embassy, both of which were blamed on Al Qaeda-linked operatives.
Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi issued a condemnation immediately after the attack, apologizing to President Barack Obama and the American people and vowing to conduct a full investigation into the attack.
But while the breach of the embassy appeared to be a spontaneous outgrowth of the demonstration, many here have argued that today’s events were best seen in context of both the nation’s continuing instability and simmering anger at American policies in Yemen.
In his statement, President Hadi alluded to lingering divisions within the Yemeni military, the result of last year’s uprising against his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, saying that they “contributed to the amplification” of today’s incident. Despite Mr. Saleh's removal from power, many analysts continue to express concerns over what they characterize as "divided loyalties" within some branches of the Yemeni armed forces.
"The protests were expected," said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. "But from the breaching of the embassy, it seems like someone has delved into muddy waters."
The bulk of the troops guarding the embassy appeared to belong to the Central Security Forces (CSF) a branch of the military led by former President Saleh’s nephew.
Many Yemenis were quick to note that anger at the United States government stems from far more than the film itself. Many here continue to complain of perceived American meddling in the country’s affairs, pointing to the United States’ history of strong support for former president Saleh, who American officials once characterized as a key anti-terrorism ally.
A botched drone strike south of Sanaa that accidentally struck a civilian vehicle, leaving at least 10 civilians dead, including three children, has also ratcheted up resentment.
“I condemn the attack,” said one secular Yemeni activist. “But events like this are ultimately a result of America’s policies, which have negatively effected the Yemeni people.”