A Yemeni soldier inspects the site of the killing of Qassem Aqlan, a security… (Yahya Arhab, European Pressphoto…)
SANA, Yemen — A Yemeni security investigator at the U.S. Embassy here was shot and killed Thursday by masked men on a motorcycle in the latest assassination by militants of political and security targets in cities across the country.
Yemen officials said the ambush bore the tracings of Al Qaeda, which in recent months has intensified its activities in the Yemeni capital after coming under increasing pressure by U.S. drone strikes and offensives by security forces against its redoubts in the nation's south.
The slaying follows last month's storming of the embassy by a mob outraged by an anti-Islam video produced in California that denigrated the prophet Muhammad. The video ignited a wave of anti-American protests across the Muslim world and provided the chaos in Benghazi, Libya, that preceded a militant attack on the U.S. mission there. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the assault.
Yemen has long been a dangerous country for U.S. interests — a 2008 car bombing at the embassy killed at least 16 people, including militants — and Sana, the capital, is an eerie mix of Islamic extremists, tribes, rebels and soldiers loyal to rival factions, including the family of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
"After military actions against Al Qaeda in the south, the group has declared an open war against the government," said Saeed Ali Obaid Jamhi, an expert on militant groups. "Al Qaeda has a list of those they want to assassinate and at the top of it is the Yemeni defense minister."
Qassem Aqlan was shot Thursday in his car near his house in western Sana, news reports said. The embassy is in the eastern part of the city. Yemen officials described Aqlan as a security liaison officer who may have been involved in the investigation of last month's assault on the embassy. The U.S. denied that he was part the investigation.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Aqlan "worked as a Foreign Service national investigator at the embassy for the last 11 years. He was a dedicated professional who will be greatly missed. We are coordinating closely with the Yemeni authorities to investigate this attack."
The State Department has been under intense questioning this week by members of Congress over security at U.S. diplomatic posts around the world. Washington had sent a contingent of Marines to protect the Yemen Embassy after last month's violence
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has exploited Yemen's persistent political unrest, especially since demonstrations last year that ultimately forced Saleh, who had ruled the country for 33 years, to step down. The new president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has welcomed U.S. drone strikes, including those last week that killed about five extremists, and other military assistance in targeting Al Qaeda leaders.
U.S. forces are believed to have carried out at least 34 airstrikes in Yemen this year, up from 10 the previous year, according to the website Long War Journal, which tracks drone strikes in Yemen and elsewhere.
The militants have responded by focusing attacks on Yemen's political, security and intelligence networks. The Yemen Interior Ministry said 42 of its intelligence officers were assassinated last year and 58 have been killed this year, including Col. Abdullah Ashwal, a senior intelligence official, who was shot by masked men on a motorcycle.
Militant attacks have grown increasingly visceral. Two videos released this week show the beheadings of three Yemeni soldiers and three men accused of spying for the government. In May at least 90 soldiers and police officers were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a military parade rehearsal in Sana.
"Al Qaeda is not fighting on one front anymore. They're spread out in mountains and cities," said Ahmed Zuruah, a Yemeni political analyst. "They are more difficult to counter and it will take more caution. The U.S. drone attacks have created a backlash and are making it much easier for Al Qaeda to recruit."
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Al-Alayaa from Sana.