WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force evacuated non-essential U.S. government civilian personnel from Yemen early Tuesday in the face of a threat of terrorist attacks emanating from al-Qaida elements operating on the Arabian Peninsula.
A military official not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said about 75 Americans were flown out of the country on a C-17 transport aircraft, while another C-17 was on hand as a backup.
In an emergency message on Tuesday, the State Department said the “security threat level in Yemen is extremely high,” and urged all U.S. citizens in the country to depart immediately.
“As we have said, we are concerned about a threat stream indicating the potential for terrorist attacks against U.S. persons or facilities overseas, especially emanating from the Arabian Peninsula,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday in a separate written statement. “As such, the Department is taking appropriate steps to protect our employees, including local employees and visitors to our facilities.”
The threat of an attack earlier prompted the department to order temporary closures of 19 embassies in the Middle East and Africa out of what officials called “an abundance of caution.”
U.S. diplomatic personnel in Yemen were evacuated from the capital Sanaa at State Department request, Pentagon press secretary George Little said in a written statement. But U.S. troops are still in the country guarding essential personnel.
“The U.S. Department of Defense continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation,” he said.
Britain’s Foreign Office said Tuesday it had temporarily evacuated all staff from its embassy in Sanaa because of the same security threats, The Associated Press reported.
The wave of shutdowns followed the intercept of a secret message between al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leader of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula about plans for a major terror attack, security officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Associated Press.
U.S. drone strikes have been pummeling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with CNN reporting Yemeni officials said there had been four drone strikes against militants in the past 10 days.
Although officials, including President Barack Obama, have said the “core” of al-Qaida, based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is on the ropes because of U.S. military pressure, affiliates of the group appear to be on the rise elsewhere.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that “as al-Qaida core has been diminished through the efforts of the United States and our allies, affiliate organizations — including in particular, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — have strengthened.”