SANAA, Yemen (AP) - Yemen was thrust back into the forefront of the international fight against terrorism Tuesday when the U.S. and Britain evacuated embassy staff due to a threatened attack, a suspected U.S. drone killed four alleged members of al-Qaida, and militants shot down a Yemeni army helicopter.
As Westerners flew out of the country, Yemeni authorities launched a wide investigation into the al-Qaida threat to multiple potential targets in the impoverished Arab nation. Security officials said they believed the terror network was seeking retaliation for a U.S.-backed military offensive that has dealt serious setbacks to the terror network's most active branch, including the death earlier this year of its No. 2 leader.
The Yemeni army, meanwhile, surrounded foreign installations, government offices and the airport with tanks and troops in the nation's capital, Sanaa, as well as the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits at the entrance to the Red Sea in the southern Arabian Peninsula, drawing parallels with security measures following the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor that killed 17 American sailors.
Travelers make their way to the departure lounge at Sanaa International Airport, Yemen, Tuesday.
Authorities also set up checkpoints across Sanaa, searching cars and individuals, especially after night fell. Top government officials, along with military and security commanders, were told to stay vigilant and limit their movements.
Although the immediate threat seemed to be focused on Yemen, the U.S. has temporarily shut down 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and Africa.
A U.S. intelligence official and a Mideast diplomat said the closures were triggered by the interception of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, about plans for a major terror attack.
Zawahri also made a public statement on July 30 that exhorted Muslims to kill Americans "in every spot on Earth."
Yemeni investigators looking into the threat said they believe the motive of the attack was retaliation for the killing of Saudi-born Saeed al-Shihri, who was released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay after nearly six years and later became the No. 2 al-Qaida leader in Yemen. Al-Shihri was critically wounded in a November drone strike and later died of his wounds, the militant group acknowledged.
There has been a spike in apparent U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaida leaders. The attack Tuesday was the fourth in two weeks.
Yemeni officials say the drone fired a missile at a car carrying four men in the al-Arqeen district of Marib province, setting it on fire and killing them. One of the dead was believed to be Saleh Jouti, a senior al-Qaida member.
In Sanaa, residents awoke to the sound of an aircraft overhead. Officials said it was American, and photos posted on Instagram appeared to show a P-3 Orion, a manned surveillance aircraft.
The rare overflight of the capital came shortly before the announcements of the evacuations.