SANAA, YEMEN — One of the two officers at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen who shot and killed a pair of suspected al-Qaida gunmen was getting a haircut at a barbershop when the attempted abduction took place, Yemeni security officials said Sunday.
The attempted kidnapping April 24 is the latest evidence of al-Qaida’s expanding presence in the capital, a serious challenge to the authority of the already weak central government. It also could strain ties between Yemen and the U.S., which has launched an aggressive campaign of drone strikes against suspected al-Qaida fighters in the country.
The barbershop, owned by a longtime Indian resident, is on Heda Street, a commercial road in the southern part of the city where some of Sanaa’s best restaurants, supermarkets and high-end boutiques are located.
The Yemeni officials said the armed militants arrived in a battered SUV and burst into the shop shouting: “Police! Police!” The officials said one of the two Americans was having his hair cut, while the second waited for his turn.
They said one of the Americans killed both militants before the pair jumped into their waiting SUV and drove off. Owners of nearby stores rushed to the barbershop on hearing the gunshots but the Americans already had left, the officials said.
Yemeni authorities questioned the two Americans and later gave them permission to leave the country, the officials said. The two fully cooperated with the Yemeni government investigation, they said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists.
Late Friday, the U.S. State Department said the two Americans, whom it did not identify, were at a Sanaa business at the time of the attack and have since left Yemen. Citing unidentified U.S. officials, The New York Times has reported that the Americans were a CIA officer and a lieutenant colonel with the elite Joint Special Operations Command.
Yemeni authorities merely identified the two as “American security personnel” and said the two who tried to kidnap them hailed from the province of Maarib east of Sanaa, an al-Qaida stronghold.
They said the two gunmen were suspected members of an al-Qaida cell operating in Sanaa who focus on the abduction of foreigners for ransom. The suspected head of that cell, they said, was killed last Tuesday in Sanaa during a clash with security forces.
The U.S., which trains Yemen’s counterterrorism forces, has been waging a heavy campaign of drone strikes in Yemen against suspected al-Qaida targets, launching more than 100 such strikes since 2002, according to the nonpartisan public policy institute New America Foundation. Civilian casualties in the drone strikes have sparked anger in the country and among human rights groups
The U.S. considers Yemen’s branch of al-Qaida, also known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, to be the most dangerous in the world. The group is blamed for a number of unsuccessful bomb plots aimed at Americans, including an attempt to bring down a U.S.-bound airliner with explosives hidden in the bomber’s underwear and a second plot to send mail bombs hidden in the toner cartridges on planes headed to the U.S.
It overran large swathes of territory in Yemen’s south in 2011. Yemen’s army, supported by U.S. military experts and drone strikes, has pushed them back, but clashes and al-Qaida attacks in Yemen persist.
Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa closed temporarily because of attacks on Westerners. A day before Tuesday’s closure, gunmen opened fire on three French security guards working with the European Union mission in the Yemeni capital, killing one and wounding another.
Meanwhile Sunday, security forces clashed with suspected al-Qaida gunmen in an area not far from the presidential palace in Sanaa, killing three militants.