SANAA, Yemen — The kidnappers pulled up in a pickup truck outside the Taj barbershop in an upscale neighborhood here in the Yemeni capital. One held an AK-47 assault rifle and the other carried a stun gun. As the men went inside, nearby shopkeepers heard shots.
Then a foreigner — tall, with the physique of a body builder, and holding a black gun — was seen standing over one of the mortally wounded attackers in the doorway of the barbershop, witnesses said. The foreigner kicked an automatic weapon out of the man’s hands, looked right and left down the street, jumped into a nearby sport utility vehicle and drove away.
Those new details emerged Saturday about a shooting last month in which the Obama administration said two Americans from the U.S. Embassy killed two armed Yemenis who were trying to kidnap them from the barbershop.
While much about the encounter remains unclear, a Yemeni official said Saturday that the two Yemeni assailants were part of a cell linked to al-Qaida that had planned and executed several attacks on foreigners in the country. Whether by design or chance, the official said, the Americans had apparently disrupted a kidnapping ring that government officials blame for killing a Frenchman last week, kidnapping a Dutch couple last year, trying to assassinate a German diplomat last month, and attacking the central prison here in February, freeing 19 inmates.
The shooting at the barbershop led Yemeni authorities to the group’s leader, Wael Abdullah al-Waeli, said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Col. Mohamed al-Qaidi. Yemeni officials said that they killed al-Waeli on Wednesday during a shootout in the capital. The State Department announced Wednesday that it had closed its embassy here to the public because of security concerns.
The shooting on April 24 has opened a rare window into U.S. clandestine operations in Yemen, a major battleground against what counterterrorism officials say is al-Qaida’s most dangerous regional affiliate. And it has emerged as a potential source of embarrassment for Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose government helped conceal the U.S. role in the shooting, allowing the two officers to leave Yemen quietly a few days after the shooting.
Yemeni officials have not yet publicly acknowledged that Americans were responsible for killing the attackers, referring only to “foreigners.”
In Washington, spokesmen for the State Department, Pentagon and CIA declined on Saturday to provide any details about the shooting. U.S. officials, however, said they strongly suspected that the al-Qaida branch in Yemen was behind the attempted kidnapping, and that embassy personnel were targets of other planned kidnappings. The State Department acknowledged Friday only that two embassy officers had shot and killed two assailants who tried to kidnap them, and that the shooting was under investigation.