SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni officials on Tuesday sharply denounced the United States’ decision to evacuate some of its staff from its embassy in the country in the first sign of a split between allies over the Obama administration’s reaction to what U.S. officials say is one of the most specific terrorism threats in years.
In a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry, Yemen said it “appreciates foreign governments’ concern for the safety of their citizens.” But it added that the decision by the United States and Great Britain to evacuate “embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.”
“Yemen has taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital,” the statement said. “Yemen remains strongly committed to the global effort to counter the threats of al Qaida and its affiliates.”
The statement seemed to suggest that Yemen’s government views as unnecessary the U.S. decision to close its embassies in Sanaa and 20 other countries over the weekend and to keep the closures in place in 16 nations for the remainder of the week. But analysts in the United States said the U.S. actions, which have unfolded over five days, suggested that U.S. officials were truly concerned.
“You see how Wild West it’s been and how locked down the embassy already was, but even then they kept the doors open,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on extremism. “This thing must be way serious for them to ask these folks to go home.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was briefed "in real time on these matters” but that the State Department had made the decision to evacuate.
"We are responding to the information that we have and, out of an abundance of caution, taking steps to ensure the security of American personnel and of facilities in a variety of countries around the region and the world," Carney said. "The threat is ongoing and it’s real, and we consider it serious."
The closures were triggered, a Yemeni official told McClatchy on Sunday, by an intercepted message between the head of al Qaida, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the head of al Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate, Nasir al Wuhayshi, in which Zawahiri issued a clear order for Wuhayshi to launch an attack.
U.S. officials have called the message the most specific warning in years of a terrorist plot, though the place and timing of the planned attack remain a mystery. That led to an unusually broad American reaction that involved nations from eastern Africa to south Asia. Several aren’t generally known for the presence of terrorists.
U.S. officials also issued an alert advising Americans traveling internationally to exercise caution throughout August.
But it became clear Tuesday that the greatest American concern is in Yemen, where the al Qaida affiliate, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, not only has been battling the government but also has launched several failed attempts on U.S. targets.
U.S. officials announced that non-emergency embassy staff would be evacuated from the country. They also advised Americans living or visiting Yemen to leave the country immediately.
The announcement raised tension in the Yemeni capital, where residents were on edge already from the presence for hours of circling surveillance aircraft and news that a U.S. drone strike had killed four people in the province of Marib, some 100 miles east of the capital. It was the fourth drone strike in the country in less than two weeks.
The planes circling the Yemeni capital appeared to be unarmed – one was thought to be a U.S.-operated P-3 Orion propeller-driven plane – but Sanaa residents staring into the sky were frightened and confused, openly resentful of what many characterized as a foreign invasion of their nation’s sovereignty.
“The Yemeni people are with any efforts to fight al Qaida,” said Mohamed Said al Sharabi, a Sanaa-based journalist and political activist. “However, we oppose these cosmetic efforts which do little more than terrify Yemeni civilians.”
Al Qaida-affiliated militants have launched numerous attacks against Western targets in the country, including a deadly 2008 car bombing of the U.S. Embassy and a 2010 attack on the British ambassador’s convoy. It’s been more than a year since al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s last major attack in Sanaa, a May 2012 suicide attack that left more than 100 military cadets dead, and security officials stress that they’re taking constant precautions.
Yemen’s current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has publically backed U.S. drone strikes in his country and has pledged continuing cooperation with the United States against al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. authorities consider to be the most active of the al Qaida branches operating around the world.
Obama praised Hadi’s efforts last Thursday when Hadi visited the White House. Carney declined Monday to respond specifically to whether the two presidents had discussed the intercepted communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi.
“Because of some of the effective military reforms that Hadi initiated when he came into office, what we’ve seen is . . . al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, move back out of territories that it was controlling,” Obama said.
But the struggle against the group is hardly over. Shortly after the drone strike Tuesday in Marib, militants there shot down a military helicopter carrying Yemeni troops guarding oil installations in the province, killing all eight on board.
And the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded in March that Yemen remained too dangerous for the Defense Department to evaluate the effectiveness of its programs to improve Yemen’s counterterrorism abilities.
“Yemen’s unstable security situation constrains U.S. training of Yemeni security forces, restricts oversight of civilian assistance projects and endangers Yemeni nationals who work for the United States,” the report said, noting that a Yemeni employee of the U.S. Embassy was murdered last October.
The report said the United States had provided $497 million in security assistance to Yemen from 2007 to 2012, more than it gave to any other country, but it hadn’t evaluated those programs for their effectiveness.
“DOD headquarters officials attributed this to safety and security concerns, explaining that, given the unstable security environment in Yemen, it is not feasible at this time to send officials to Yemen to observe or interview members of the individual units,” the report said.
Hannah Allam and Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington.
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron