SANAA, Yemen -- Military and intelligence officials in Yemen said Wednesday that they uncovered an al-Qaida plot to fire missiles at foreign embassies in the capital and to attack naval forces guarding international shipping in the Red Sea.
Details of the plot, reminiscent of the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 U.S. sailors, emerged as Yemen remains in a heightened state of alert that has seen the U.S. and British embassies evacuated and a new suspected U.S. drone strike that killed seven alleged militants from the terrorist group.
The discovery of the al-Qaida plot prompted the Defense Ministry to step up security around the strategic Bab el-Mandeb waterway, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Officials banned speedboats or fishing vessels from the area, and military forces have been ordered to shoot to kill anybody who arouses suspicion or refuses to identify themselves.
An estimated 3.5 million barrels of oil passed daily through the Bab el-Mandeb strait in 2010, the most recent data available, increasing the strategic importance of impoverished Yemen, which itself has only a relatively small production of oil and natural gas. Oil and gas production revenue is declining, worsening Yemen's ability to provide social services.
Militants from the terrorist group's Yemeni branch -- known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- also were said to be plotting to use long-range missiles to target embassies and diplomats' residences, or try to take foreigners as hostages, the officials said.
Drastic security measures have been instituted across Sanaa, the capital, with multiple checkpoints set up, and tanks and other military vehicles guarding vital institutions. A drone buzzed over the city for hours during the day.
A Mideast official said the recent rise in drone strikes -- five in 10 days -- had been carefully coordinated with U.S. officials, together with Yemeni action on the ground, in response to the threat from the al-Qaida branch, considered the most active of the terrorist network.
The description of the al-Qaida plots came a day after the U.S. and Britain evacuated staff due to a threat that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa. The Yemeni military officials did not link the al-Qaida plot described Wednesday to the U.S. decision last week to temporarily close its Mideastern and African diplomatic posts.
The al-Qaidi branch in Yemen has been bolstering its operations for the past few years after key Saudi operatives fled there following a major crackdown in their homeland. The group overran entire towns and villages in 2011, taking advantage of a security lapse during nationwide protests that eventually ousted Yemen's longtime ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was able to regain control of the southern region, but al-Qaida militants continue to launch deadly attacks on security forces.