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Yemeni Officials Claim To Have Foiled Al-Qaida Terror Plot

Days after the U.S. announced it would close its diplomatic missions across the Middle East and Africa, Yemeni security officials said that they had foiled a plot by al-Qaeda to attack fuel pipelines and two of the nation's ports. It is unclear if this plot is the same as the one that was alluded to in al-Qaeda communications U.S. intelligence officials intercepted earlier this month.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Yemeni security officials say they have foiled an al-Qaida plot to attack fuel pipelines and two ports in Yemen. It's not clear if this plot is the one that prompted the U.S. to close diplomatic missions across the Middle East and Africa. Still, U.S. officials say today that American personnel in the region remain on high alert.

NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston has been following this story for us and joins us now. Hi there, Dina.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: So let's start with this plot that's supposed to have been foiled in Yemen. What have you learned about it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, a Yemeni spokesman said the plot involved seizing several ports in the eastern part of the country, while simultaneously attacking a gas pipeline in Yemen. Both ports employ a large number of workers from Western countries and the plot, they said, included kidnapping and killing them. And in that respect, this plan sounds a bit like the attack on an oil refinery in Algeria that happened last year.

In that case, members of al-Qaida's affiliate in North Africa took over this refinery and tried to make off with more than 100 Western hostages. So al-Qaida's arm in Yemen seems to have been borrowing from their playbook in this particular plot.

CORNISH: So you have security officials in Yemen saying that they foiled that plot, but is there any chance that this is connected to what the U.S. has been worried about?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, U.S. officials are being very cautious about this. They're saying that it's possible this Yemen plot is just one piece of something larger, so they aren't standing down in any way. A State Department official wouldn't comment on the Yemeni operation except to say that the U.S. embassy there is going to remain closed. There's also a global travel alert that's still in effect and it describes the threat level in Yemen as being extremely high.

Now, frankly, from a practical point of view, it wouldn't make sense for the U.S. to stand down at this point. We're at the beginning of August. The September 11th anniversary is coming up. And in the past, al-Qaida has tried to launch attacks on anniversaries. So I expect we'll see this heightened alert for weeks to come.

CORNISH: Now, there's also been reports of drone strikes in Yemen in the past couple of days. What have you learned about whether they're connected to this terror alert?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think we're seeing the first signs of how the Obama administration plans to use drones going forward. You'll recall that President Obama said in a terrorism speech earlier this year that he would be paring back the use of drones, not using them just to take out al-Qaida operatives - has been the practice till now. But instead, being more judicious, using them only when the U.S. is more directly threatened.

So there hadn't been any drone strikes in Yemen for almost two months and now there have been five in the past two weeks. And officials we talked to said that isn't a coincidence. The intercepted communications between al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who's thought to be in Pakistan, and his new deputy, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who's in Yemen, sparked the security alert and the drone strikes, too.

CORNISH: So this communication between these two al-Qaida leaders that's ramped all this up, I mean, what more do you know about that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we understand that it was an electronic intercept. U.S. officials say it wasn't a phone call. And in this intercept Zawahiri basically told his new deputy in Yemen to launch his attack. And the language seemed to indicate that the attack was supposed to happen last Sunday, but it's unclear where it would happen or exactly whether that was a firm date.

There have been some reports of a phone call and possibly a conference call with Zawahiri and other al-Qaida leaders, but a former intelligence official told me that was highly unlikely. He's been tracking Zawahiri for more than a decade and he said in all that time, the al-Qaida leader has never been known to use a phone.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thank you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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