Did Yemen Attackers Come Back From Iraq?

The car bombing outside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, which killed 16 people Wednesday, is the deadliest single terrorist attack on a U.S. government facility since September 11—and, say U.S. counter-terrorism officials, it is a powerful reminder that Al Qaeda and its allies remain a lethal force on the Arabian Peninsula.

No Americans were hurt in the early morning attack in which militants—armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades—sought to penetrate the heavily fortified compound that surrounds the U.S. Embassy in Sana. But a subsequent gun battle with Yemeni security forces and an explosion set off minutes later by suicide bombers, killed more people than any terror attack aimed at a U.S. government or military installation outside Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, U.S. officials said.

"The answer is yes. This is the largest attack against a U.S. facility since 9/11," a U.S. counter-terrorism official (who asked not to identified by name) e-mailed NEWSWEEK in response to questions. That grim milestone could undercut claims of overall success in the war on terror. Indeed, Yemen—as much as Pakistan and Afghanistan—remains a country where U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have been hampered by repeated setbacks.

For the past year, U.S. counter-terrorism officials have complained about Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's practice of capturing and then releasing Al Qaeda operatives—including Jamal al-Badawi, a key figure in the October 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 sailors. At the same time, Al Qaeda militants have escalated bombings and other attacks. Last spring, the U.S. embassy evacuated all non-emergency personnel after a series of bombings and mortar fire attacks on the embassy, a housing complex for foreigners, and a Canadian oil company facility.

Although there is no definitive proof identifying the perpetrators behind Wednesday's attack—a previously unknown splinter group called the "Organization of Islamic Jihad" claimed responsibility in messages to news agencies—U.S. and Yemeni counter-terrorism experts said they had little doubt as to who was responsible. "This has all the earmarks of Al Qaeda," said Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who spent years investigating the U.S.S. Cole bombing and other Al Qaeda operations in Yemen. "It indicates a new level of sophistication that we haven't seen by Al Qaeda in Yemen for a while. It also suggests some new expertise—either by people who were in jail and were released or people who have come back from Iraq or were trained in Somalia."

The attack began at 9:15 a.m., when a vehicle carrying gunmen, dressed in the uniforms of the Yemeni security forces, drove up to a Yemeni-manned checkpoint outside the U.S. Embassy. The gunmen engaged the security forces in a bloody gun battle that appears to have been designed to distract from a second vehicle that approached the embassy moments later. The second vehicle, carrying suicide bombers, made it through the checkpoint to a second ring of concrete blocks and then detonated a powerful bomb. (The attack was reminiscent of the last major Al Qaeda assault on a U.S. facility—the December 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in which eight people died.)

Six Yemeni security guards, four civilians (who were apparently lining up for visas) and six militants were killed. Mohammed Albasha, a spokesperson for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said 10 others were critically wounded and that the overall death toll could grow. "Yemen is a battlefield in the war on terror and we are losing lives," he said.

Albasha told NEWSWEEK that the working assumption of Yemeni security officials is that Wednesday's attack was an act of retaliation. In August, an Al Qaeda leader named Salem Omar Al Quayti was killed in another gun battle with Yemeni security forces in the eastern province of Hadramawt. (Al Quayti was one of 23 Al Qaeda militants who escaped during a spectacular 2006 jailbreak that U.S. officials concluded was an inside job.) After Al Quayti's death, Al Qaeda's Yemen branch posted a statement on an internet site on Aug. 20: "We vow to [carry out] a revenge operation."

More ominous is the prospect that the militants who carried out Wednesday's attack might have been fighters who had returned from battle in Iraq—a potential harbinger of more operations to come. A Yemeni source (who asked not to be identified because of political sensitivities) said the Yemeni government has been concerned about returning Iraq fighters for some time, and that that was one reason Salah's government chose last year to release Jamal al-Badawi, the militant indicted in the United States for his role in the Cole bombing.

Badawi's release enraged senior U.S. counter-terrorism officials and prompted FBI Director Robert Mueller to fly to Yemen last spring to complain directly to Salah. But the Yemeni source said Badawi's reason had a logic related to Iraq. The Yemeni fighters returning from Iraq were coming back having learned new and sophisticated techniques to avoid detection by security forces. They avoided use of cell phones and e-mail. The Yemenis hoped to follow Badawi in hopes that his status as a Cole bomber would lead them to other fighters returning from Iraq, the source said. But U.S. objections prompted the Yemenis to re-arrest Badawi, the Yemeni official insisted. U.S. officials, however, are still furious that Badawi has not been turned over to the United States—to face trial for an attack that killed 17 sailors—and are skeptical that Badawi is truly in Yemeni custody at all times.