Al Qaeda plot revealed? Yemen says it stopped massive militant operation

 Yemeni officials say Al Qaeda operatives were targeting oil pipelines and port cities, with an eye on the country's export infrastructure.

Hani Mohammed/AP
A policeman checks a car at the entrance of Sanaa International Airport, in Yemen, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013.

Yemeni officials say the government has foiled a massive plot to attack the country's oil and export infrastructure, plans that may have been the subject of last week's Al Qaeda communications that triggered a broad US closure of its diplomatic missions around the world.

BBC News reports that, according to a Yemeni government spokesman, the plot involved the capture of several cities and destruction of pipelines. Had it succeeded, says the BBC's David Willis, the plan "would have given al-Qaeda control over a crucial aspect of the country's infrastructure."

Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said the plot involved blowing up oil pipelines and taking control of certain cities – including two ports in the south, one of which accounts for the bulk of Yemen's oil exports and is where a number of foreign workers are employed.

"There were attempts to control key cities in Yemen like Mukala and Bawzeer," said Mr Badi.

"This would be co-ordinated with attacks by al-Qaeda members on the gas facilities in Shebwa city and the blowing up of the gas pipe in Belhaf city."

The BBC's Abdullah Ghorab adds that Sanaa is seeing "unprecedented" security measures, with a massive military presence on the streets and around key locations, including foreign missions, government offices, and the airport. An unnamed Yemeni Interior Ministry official told CNN that several Al Qaeda operatives have arrived in Sanaa in recent days, spurring the heightened security.

The plot could explain the US decision to shut down some 20 embassies across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia this week, which was earlier reported to be spurred, at least in part, by communications indicating the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was preparing for an attack. According to reports earlier this week, those communications included an explicit order by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to AQAP chief Nasser al-Wuhayshi to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday.

The identities of the two Qaeda leaders whose discussions were monitored and the imminent nature of the suspected plot — in the intercepts, the terrorists mentioned Sunday as the day that the attacks were to take place — help explain why the United States, as well as other Western governments, took such extraordinary steps in the past few days to close embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa.

“This was significant because it was the big guys talking, and talking about very specific timing for an attack or attacks,” said one American official who had been briefed on the intelligence reports in recent days.

Further, reports the Daily Beast, the communication wasn't simply a direct message between the two -- rather, it took place during a conference call of more than 20 Al Qaeda operatives across the world.

Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure Al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a US intelligence official. The presence of aspiring Al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sinai was one reason the State Department closed the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to one US intelligence official. “These guys already proved they could hit Eilat. It’s not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv,” the official said. ...

“This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” one US intelligence officer told The Daily Beast, referring to the coalition of villains featured in the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends.

The Daily Beast adds that "during the meeting, the various Al Qaeda leaders discussed in vague terms plans for a pending attack and mentioned that a team or teams were already in place for such an attack." The unspecified threat would explain the reasoning behind the government's broad mission closures, which some analysts have criticized as irrational – or "crazy pants," as Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism, told McClatchy.

The BBC writes that sources say the US is preparing special operations attacks against AQAP in Yemen. CBS News reports that at least six suspected Al Qaeda militants were killed today in a drone strike in southern Yemen, the fifth drone strike in two weeks.

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