Even Yemeni Government Spokesman Finds Foiled Plot Hard to Believe

Even Yemeni Government Spokesman Finds Foiled Plot Hard to Believe

Even the spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, D.C. is having a hard time believing a plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that the Yemeni government says it foiled.

Several news agencies — including the BBC, the New York Times, and Bloomberg, among others — reported this morning that the Yemeni government claimed it had stopped a large AQAP attack in Yemen’s Hadhramaut province. As the BBC reported:

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."

That didn’t sound right to Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy, and he said so on his personal Twitter account:

AQAP notably tried to seize Yemeni towns in 2011 and 2012, as the country’s popular uprising drew the military’s attention to the capital, Sanaa. And it was a strategic blunder for the organization. AQAP and its political arm, Ansar al-Sharia, alienated the towns they occupied and were ousted by the Yemeni military and "popular committees" — militias formed by local sheikhs to retake the area. Since being pushed out in mid-2012, AQAP has remained in hiding.

The New York Times was more measured in its appraisal of the threat, reporting that the target was not whole cities, but rather a specific Canadian-operated oil installation in the Hadhramaut port capital of Mukallah. But even this seemed strange to some Yemen experts.

"[Yemeni authorities are] claiming that this plot that they’ve foiled includes attacks planned against oil pipelines here, specifically to take control of several ports in Yemen," Iona Craig, a correspondent for the Times of London, told BBC World Service from Sanaa. "Now, the oil pipelines get attacked on a regular basis — in fact, they’ve been blown up twice in the last two weeks — so that’s not unusual, and it’s not always related to al Qaeda." In fact, oil pipelines are frequently targeted by Yemeni tribal groups as a means of forcing concessions from the central government.

Adding to the dubious nature of the report: The Yemeni government did not specify how it thwarted the supposed attack. The United States conducted an airstrike in neighboring Shabwa province on Wednesday, killing seven, but that hardly seems sufficient to stop what was, by the Yemeni government’s account, to be a large-scale attack.

The Yemeni government has a history of making outsized claims about its counterterrorism successes; on at least two occasions, officials claimed to have killed AQAP’s deputy emir, Said al-Shihri, only for Shihri to release statements demonstrating that he was still very much alive. But there’s little wonder why the Yemeni government would claim a victory now. With the U.S. diplomatic community in lockdown in response to a terror threat emanating from Yemen — Craig, speaking to the BBC, describes the persistent hum of P-3 Orion electronic surveillance planes circling Sanaa today — the government has every reason to try and demonstrate that it’s doing its part in combating AQAP. As for what precisely that part has consisted of — well, Yemeni officials have been more tight-lipped on that front.