After Yemeni death, is al-Qaeda involved in Prophet protests?

Sep 13, 2012
Louisa Loveluck

Some suspect AQAP involvement as Yemeni is shot dead entering US embassy in Sana’a

White shahada flag

ONE PROTESTER was shot dead by security forces today after hundreds forced their way into the compound of the US embassy in Sana’a as anger over a YouTube film ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed spread to Yemen.

Following similar protests in Egypt and Libya this week, a crowd had gathered around the embassy this morning, chanting “death to America”. A US flag was burned.

The protest initially took the form of a peaceful sit-in involving independent youth groups, but a call to demonstrate was also issued by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a religious leader accused by the US of supporting terrorism. Named on the US Treasury Department’s “specially designated global terrorist” list, Zindani is a prominent member of Yemen’s islamist Islah party.

Because Zindani has ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based arm of the terrorist franchise, there has inevitably been speculation that AQAP was involved in the protest.

Over the past decade, US-Yemeni relations have been defined by cooperation over counter-terrorism. AQAP’s involvement in a number of bomb plots against American targets prompted an increase in counter-terrorism funding from the United States as it encouraged the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to bring militant-held areas of the country under control.

More recently, a US-led programme of drone strikes has attracted a sizeable anti-American backlash in Yemen. Although unmanned bombing raids are supposed to target AQAP fighters in remote provinces, they often miss their targets, devastating civilian areas. US ambassador Gerald Feierstein is an especially unpopular figure, with many believing his approach to be “heavy handed”.

Accusations of AQAP involvement in the Sana’a protest echo a wider narrative that has emerged to explain violent protests in Libya that led to the death of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in a rocket attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Tuesday.

US officials have suggested that eyewitness accounts of the level of firepower deployed in the attack “indicate something more than a spontaneous protest”. The issue was raised by Adam B. Schiff, a member of the House intelligence committee, as he questioned whether the tragic events were a result of al-Qaeda affiliates “capitalising on the opportunity posed by [a protest]”.

The Quilliam Foundation, a London-based counterterrorism think tank, yesterday reminded observers that the attack on the consulate came 24 hours after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video marking the anniversary of 9/11 and urging Libyans to avenge the killing of his second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi.

However, a senior US intelligence official dismissed claims of direct al-Qaeda involvement in Benghazi, saying that they had not seen “any significant indication” of this.

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