SANAA, Yemen -- A senior Yemeni officer working in the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa was killed Thursday in an attack that security sources said bore the hallmarks of the regional al-Qaida franchise. The killing comes amid sharp U.S. scrutiny of security at foreign diplomatic posts in the wake of the militant assault one month ago on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel.
Witnesses said two men on a motorcycle drove up alongside the car of the embassy employee, Qassim M. Aklan, and one of them opened fire, killing him. Mr. Aklan was in the west of the city; the embassy is in the eastern part.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but militants have attacked official targets in Yemen in response to the government's campaign against cells of the regional franchise, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. counterterrorism officials have called the terror network's most active affiliate.
The State Department condemned the killing as "vicious." Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a briefing: "He was a dedicated professional, and he will be greatly missed. We're coordinating closely with the Yemeni authorities to investigate this attack and help bring those responsible to justice."
But she said there was no certain information yet on whether he had been killed "for reasons that had something to do with his job, or reasons that had nothing to do with his job."
Mr. Aklan had worked at the embassy for 11 years, she said, and was out with a family member when he was shot. In his most recent position at the embassy, he was employed as a security investigator and liaison, a fairly common position in U.S. embassies, which means he could have been doing work that involved background checks or coordinating with local police.
Ms. Nuland denied earlier reports from officials in Yemen that Mr. Aklan had been helping to look into the episode last month in which protesters furious over a video produced in the United States that mocked the Prophet Muhammad breached the compound's outer security perimeter. The demonstrations were part of wider regional unrest over the video that started in Cairo and spread to nearly 20 nations across the Middle East and beyond. It was during the start of that unrest that militants overran the Benghazi mission.
Asked at the briefing whether the State Department interpreted the timing of the killing -- one month after the Benghazi attack -- as significant, Ms. Nuland said, "We just don't know."
Separately, the headless bodies of three soldiers were found Thursday near Marib, a city east of Sanaa, local security sources said.
Local residents said suspected operatives of the branch of al-Qaida operating in Yemen kidnapped the three soldiers Wednesday from the same checkpoint and returned their bodies there Thursday morning after beheading them. Earlier in the week, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for beheading three Yemeni men whom the group accused of spying for Yemeni intelligence while posing as al-Qaida operatives. Their bodies were dumped on three streets in Marib.world