The closure of the U.S. Embassy in Yemen has forced the CIA "to significantly scale back" its counterterrorism presence in that country, current and former U.S. officials told The Washington Post.
The officials added that the evacuation of U.S. personnel from that country is a major defeat for Western operations against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) —
the terror network's most dangerous affiliate.
Dozens of CIA analysts, operatives, and other staffers have reportedly been withdrawn from Yemen as part of the withdrawal of close to 200 Americans based at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, officials said. Some of those who have left Yemen were senior officers who worked closely Yemeni security and intelligence services in targeting al-Qaida operatives and disrupting terrorist plots aimed at the United States.
Houthi fighters backed by Iran could be seen driving vehicles abandoned at an airport by U.S. diplomats as they left Yemen. Before leaving the embassy, they burned tens of thousands of documents to prevent them from falling into hostile hands, UPI reports.
Houthi supporters rallied in Sanaa neighborhoods, with some holding banners declaring, "Death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews."
The collapse of Yemen’s government has already disrupted some U.S. counterterrorism operations in the country and is "extremely damaging" to the CIA’s mission there, a former senior U.S. official told the Post.
The ex-official added that the embassy had been the primary base in Yemen for U.S. intelligence operations and that "the political turmoil in Sanaa and the closure of the embassy all play into the hands" of AQAP.
U.S. officials said that some CIA personnel remained in Yemen and that the agency was attempting to salvage the intelligence network it had built in conjunction with Yemen and Saudi Arabia during the past five years.
But the embassy closure has made close coordination with Yemen’s intelligence service "all but impossible," according to the Post, and there is concern that the intelligence which aided the drone campaign against AQAP could dry up.
"The issue would be whether you have the intelligence you need to know what to target," a senior U.S. official said shortly before the embassy was closed. "To a large extent, that was a product of the cooperation we got from the Yemenis."
Pentagon officials have said that U.S. Special Operations teams are still in Yemen and are still working with that country’s counterterrorism units outside the capital. But U.S. officials said the political turmoil has hampered those operations and that any decline in intelligence could impact another drone program operated by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command.
AQAP has been linked to numerous plots targeting the United States, including the attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight near Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and a failed plot to smuggle bomb-laden printer cartridges into the United States the following year.
AQAP "is a direct threat to the U.S. homeland that we must continue to hunt down with unrelenting persistence," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican, said Wednesday.
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