Connect to share and comment

U.S. closes embassy in Yemen amid threat

As the U.K. follows the U.S. move in Sanaa, those at school where would-be Northwest bomber studied describe a "good person."

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is shown in this booking photograph released by the U.S. Marshals Service Dec. 28, 2009. Abdulmutallab, 23, who was traveling with a valid U.S. visa although he was on a broad U.S. list of possible security threats, was overpowered by passengers and crew on the Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25 after setting alight an explosive device attached to his body. (Reuters)

SANAA, Yemen – On Sept. 21, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be terrorist who failed to blow up a plane with 300 people aboard on Christmas day, left the Sanaa Institute for the Arabic Language in a taxi headed to the airport. The school, an ancient latticed house tucked behind a sun-soaked garden, had been his home for over a month.

The institute’s director, Muhammed Al-Anisi, thought the 23-year-old Nigerian was going home. Al-Anisi was celebrating the Islamic holidays with his family that day and did not have time to say goodbye. “I felt like he was a good person,” Al-Anisi told GlobalPost this past weekend.

More than three months later, Al-Anisi was shocked to find out that Abdulmutallab had stayed Yemen until early December. Then, he made his way to Amsterdam — the Yemen Foreign Ministry told GlobalPost they did not yet know how — where he boarded Northwest Flight 253 bound for the U.S. and began his attempt to carry out a terrorist attack in the skies over Detroit.

Abdulmutallab was devout, Al-Anisi said, attending prayers at the local mosques five times a day, but no one at the institute suspected he was a violent extremist.

“There are a lot of people like him that are not terrorists,” he said.

But on Friday, President Barack Obama said that investigators have confirmed that the plot to blow up the Northwest jet was conceived and planned in Yemen by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and executed by Abdulmutallab. 

And over the weekend, the U.S. announced that it had shut its Yemen embassy, based on the threat of an Al Qaeda attack. In a brief statement on its website, the embassy said: "The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa is closed today, Jan. 3, 2010, in response to ongoing threats by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to attack American interests in Yemen."

The White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan told the Associated Press that the embassy, which was attacked twice in 2008, was shut Sunday because of an "active" Al Qaeda threat. Britain followed the move Sunday, telling the BBC that  its embassy in Sanaa was closed "for security reasons."

And in an indication of the seriousness with which the U.S. views the current threat posed by Yemen,  Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in Sanaa Saturday. Petraeus met with Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh "as part of our ongoing consultations with and efforts in support of Yemen," a senior administration official told the Wall Street Journal. "We have made Yemen a priority over the course of this year, and this is the latest in that effort," the official said. 

Meantime, Obama in his weekly address broadcast online early Saturday, said of Abdulmutallab: “We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies.”

“It appears that he joined an affiliate of Al Qaeda, and that this group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”

According to Ali Saif Hassan, the executive director of the Yemeni research institute Political Development Forum, Yemen’s growing infamy as a hotspot for the terrorist organization is no surprise.