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Embassy Attack Marks Rise Of Al-Qaida In Yemen

Susan Elbaneh (left) with her cousin Tofeek Elbaneh, was killed in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Yemen.
Family Photo via AP
Susan Elbaneh (left) with her cousin Tofeek Elbaneh, was killed in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Yemen.
Alice Kreit/NPR
A burned out car outside the front of the U.S. embassy in San'a after the al-Qaida attack.
Ivan Watson/NPR
A burned out car outside the front of the U.S. embassy in San'a after the al-Qaida attack.

The government of Yemen has vowed to apprehend the militants behind an attack on the U.S. embassy in San'a earlier this month that left 17 people dead.

American officials say the attack had the hallmark of an al-Qaida operation. Diplomats and analysts say that after suffering a series of setbacks earlier this decade, al-Qaida in Yemen has reorganized and succeeded in mounting increasingly deadly strikes over the past two years, mostly against foreign targets.

When militants launched their well-coordinated frontal assault on the U.S. embassy in Yemen, they killed at least nine Yemenis and one American citizen — 18-year-old Susan Elbaneh — a high school student of Yemeni descent from Lackawanna, N.Y.


"Susan, she was real smart, quiet, fun-loving," says Mohammed Elbaneh, her brother, who struggled to fight back tears as he spoke. "Everybody that met her got along with her. She had a lot of friends. And when they hear that she passed away, they had a memorial for her at the high school."

Mohammed says Susan traveled to Yemen for the first time this summer to marry a Yemeni man. On the morning of Sept. 17, the newlyweds were standing in line for documents outside the U.S. embassy in San'a when militants attacked the heavily fortified compound with bombs and automatic weapons.

Tim Torlot, Britain's ambassador to Yemen, called the strike a huge escalation by al-Qaida in Yemen.

"We've known for some time that al-Qaida here were focused on Western interests," Torlot says.

"It is the second attack on the American embassy this year, following the attack in March earlier on, which was obviously much less devastating in its impact. And other attacks that we have seen have been focused on the interface between Western interests here, whether it's the oil companies, whether it's Western tourists or the diplomatic premises here."


Al-Qaida first attracted international attention in Yemen in 2000 in the sleepy port of Aden. Militants in a raft filled with explosives killed 17 American sailors when they rammed a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole.

Yemen's relationship with the Islamist militants goes as far back as the 1980s, when thousands of Yemeni volunteers were recruited for a U.S.-backed program to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.

"I think Yemen is suffering from that policy," says Abdel Karim al Ariani, an adviser to Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"The first-generation terrorists, so to speak, were all in Afghanistan. Now we are facing the second-generation terrorists who were trained by the first generation."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Yemen signed on as an ally in the U.S.-led war on terror. Ariani says the Yemeni government also embarked on a rehabilitation program for some of the jailed militants, which has been criticized by Washington.

"Some of them were rehabilitated, some of them were employed by the government, some were recruited into the army and security," Ariani says.

"Others, it seems, agreed not to act against the government for quite some time. Until recently, [when] they resumed."

Yemen is, by far, the poorest and most conflict-prone of the countries on the Arabian peninsula. Gregory Johnson of Princeton University says that in recent years, the Yemeni government has had its hands full trying to deal with other, larger revolts that had nothing to do with al-Qaida.

"For the government, al-Qaida has never been an existential threat that really threatened the survival of the regime," Johnson says.

But Johnson says al-Qaida got a shot in the arm in February 2006, when 23 prisoners escaped from a jail in downtown San'a.

"And out of these 23, there were a number [who] had been closely allied with Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s in Afghanistan," Johnson says. "And they worked very hard, and they have done a spectacular job over the last two years of really reorganizing, reconstituting al-Qaida in Yemen — essentially bring the organization up from the ashes."

One of the men who escaped in that jail break is Jaber Elbaneh, a Yemeni-American from Lackawanna, N.Y., who is on the FBI's Most Wanted list for allegedly providing material support to al-Qaida.

Jaber Elbaneh is a distant relative of Susan Elbaneh, and Susan's surviving brother Mohammed hopes that people will see past the stigma of his outlaw cousin and recognize that his family, too, has become a victim of the al-Qaida movement.

"[My] family is accused of terrorism — my uncle is in jail, so is my cousin," Mohammed says. "But same thing, my sister is a victim of terrorism. Terrorists. Terrorist act."

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