SAN'A, Yemen Militants linked to al-Qaida launched a brazen attack against the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital Wednesday, firing automatic weapons and setting off grenades and a car bomb in a furious fusillade that failed to breach the walls but killed 16 people, including a newly wed New York woman.
It was the deadliest direct assault on a U.S. Embassy in a decade, claiming the lives of six attackers, six Yemeni guards and four civilians.
Yemeni security officials said civilian casualties could have been far worse. The streets were relatively empty because many people sleep late during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
About 9:15 a.m., multiple explosions from the car bomb and grenades shook the affluent Dhahr Himyar district, a residential area dotted with five-star hotels and other embassies. Palls of black smoke rose over the street, lined with modern buildings in the style of the centuries-old white-trimmed mud brick houses that are a landmark of San'a's Old City. Snipers hidden across the street fired on emergency personnel rushing to the scene.
The attackers, some dressed in army uniforms, were stopped short of the compound's walls by guards and massive security barriers, but civilians waiting in line for visas outside the embassy were among the casualties. Three police officers and seven civilians were injured, including children in a residential compound across the street from the embassy, home to many Westerners.
Susan Elbaneh, 18, a U.S. citizen from Lackawanna, N.Y., who was recently wed in Yemen in an arranged marriage, was killed along with her Yemeni husband as they stood outside the embassy, family members said Wednesday. They were apparently there to do paperwork for the husband's move to the U.S. when the attackers struck, said Elbaneh's brother, Ahmed.
Elbaneh's family was gathering at her father Ali's house Wednesday afternoon.
Two FBI agents who arrived to speak with family member at the home would not comment beyond saying they were there to talk to the family.
Relatives acknowledged, however, that Susan Elbaneh is related to Jaber Elbaneh, who is in custody in Yemen and faces U.S. charges of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization. They stressed that has nothing to do with Susan, saying she is an innocent victim of Wednesday's attack.
Elbaneh, a high school senior, is one of eight children in the family, which her brother described as a "huge and close-knit." Ahmed Elbaneh said she planned to return to New York with her new husband, finish school and become a nurse.
She had been in Yemen for a month for the marriage on Aug. 25.
"She was excited. We threw her a shower. It wasn't like we were worried about anything. Tragedies happen. They are innocent victims in all of this," Ahmed Elbaneh said.
President Bush called the attack "a reminder that we are at war with extremists who will murder innocent people to achieve their ideological objectives."
The U.S. counts Yemen as an ally in the war on terrorism. But American officials have long been frustrated over what is seen as a "revolving door" policy toward al-Qaida militants by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government.
Yemen has let some convicted militants go free after promising to refrain from violence.
In 2006, a group of 23 militants escaped from a high-security prison, including 10 figures convicted in al-Qaida's 2000 bombing of the USS Cole destroyer in Aden harbor. There were widespread reports of security officials' collusion in the escape, and experts say Yemen's security and intelligence services are riddled with militant sympathizers.
State control is weak in the impoverished country the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden tribes are strong and many mountainous rural areas are lawless, giving ample room for militant training camps.
In separate statements, the U.N. Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
The U.S. Embassy has been attacked four times since 2003, most recently in March when a volley of mortars targeting the compound hit a neighboring girls high school instead, killing a Yemeni guard and wounding dozens of girls.
Just last month, the State Department allowed the return of non-essential embassy personnel and family members who had been ordered to leave after the mortars.
But Wednesday's attack was by far the deadliest and best coordinated.
It began when gunmen armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a Yemeni police checkpoint at the outer ring of security around the embassy. Amid the firefight, suicide bombers in a vehicle made it through the checkpoint, barreled into a second, inner ring of concrete blocks, and detonated, Yemeni security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
During the assault, gunmen hidden across the street also fired on Yemeni emergency personnel rushing to the scene, a U.S. official in Washington said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe an internal Bush administration briefing.
There was no immediate public claim of responsibility for the attack. Some Yemeni security officials said a local militant group called Islamic Jihad, which Yemeni authorities have cracked down on previously, claimed responsibility. But Yemeni authorities have blamed the group in past attacks that have later been claimed by al-Qaida in postings on the Internet. The group is unrelated to the Palestinian group of the same name.
But suspicion was immediately centered on al-Qaida, which has long operated in the country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.
Yemen has been a focus of American counterterrorism efforts ever since the 2000 Cole attack, in which 17 American sailors were killed by suicide bombers on a boat. A similar attack two years later hit a French oil tanker, killing one person. Since that attack and the Sept. 11 attacks, Yemen has been cracking down on militants, earning praise from Washington.
But American officials have increasingly grumbled over what they see as Yemen's failures to keep suspects in custody and its willingness to compromise with militants.
Seventeen suspects in the Cole bombing were arrested, but 10 escaped in the 2006 prison break although some have since been recaptured or killed or surrendered.
The bombing's mastermind, Jamal al-Badawi, was sentenced to death in 2004, though the sentence was commuted to 15 years in prison. He escaped jail in 2004. He surrendered in October but was set free once he renounced terrorism, according to Yemeni security officials. After pressure from the U.S., Yemen announced he had been taken back into custody.
Washington was also angered when Jaber Elbaneh, a Yemeni-American convicted in Yemen for planning attacks on oil installations, was freed earlier this year as he appealed his 10-year prison sentence. Elbaneh has since been taken back in custody, but San'a has refused American requests that Elbaneh be handed over to the U.S. for trial on charges of provide material support to terrorism.
Elbaneh is a former resident of Lackawanna, N.Y., one of the so-called "Lackawanna Six," a group of Yemeni-American men from the town who were imprisoned for traveling to an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan in 2001.
In May 2003, U.S. prosecutors charged Elbaneh in absentia with conspiring with a group known as the "Lackawanna Six" to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.
Several other lower-level militants have been freed after promising not to carry out attacks. The promises were made as part of a government rehabilitation program, which has frequently allied with Islamic extremist political groups.
During a June visit to San'a, President Bush's homeland security adviser Kenneth Wainstein pushed Saleh for "strong and serious measures to be carried out in Yemeni courts to try the terrorists and to hold them accountable."
In the meantime, militant violence has increased. A suicide car bomber attacked tourists visiting a temple linked to the ancient Queen of Sheba in central Yemen in 2007, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis. Yemeni authorities blamed that attack on an al-Qaida cell. In January, suspected al-Qaida gunmen fired on a tourist convoy in a remote desert mountain valley, killing two Belgian women and their Yemeni driver.
This year has also seen mortar attacks near the Italian Embassy and a bombing on a compound housing foreigners, neither of which caused casualties.