|Daily Press Briefing|
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
September 17, 2008
Visual from today's briefing:
Image of Embassy Sana'a
|Statement on Terrorist Attack on U.S. Embassy in Sanaa|
|Situation Update / Closure of U.S. Embassy / Warden Messages Issued|
|American Personnel Safe and Accounted For|
|No Definitive Judgments on Who is Responsible for the Attack|
|Ongoing Issue with Violent Extremists in the Maghreb and Yemen|
|Secretary Rice and President Saleh Talked This Morning|
|Need to Work Closely with These Governments|
|Embassy Sanaa Awareness of Terrorists Threats|
|Transfer of Yemeni Prisoners from Guantanamo Bay / Yemeni Incarceration Issues|
|Embassy Emergency Action Committee|
|Security Professionals to Look at Threat Posture|
|Investigative Teams to Visit Sanaa|
|Secretary Rice Opinion of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon|
|U.S. Concerns About Security Along Pakistan-Afghanistan Border|
|U.S. Relationship with President Zardari and His Government|
|Border Area Poses Important Security Interest for the World|
|No Information on Reports of New Ballistic Missile Test|
|Open Channels of Communications with All Parties of Six-Party Talks|
|North Korea Needs to Act on Verification Protocol|
|No Information on Kim Jong-ils Health|
|Religious Violence / Need for Tolerance and Understanding|
|These are Issues for the Government and People of India|
10:30 a.m. EDT
MR. MCCORMACK: Good morning, everybody. I want to start off with a brief statement and then I’ll have some information for you as well regarding the attack on our Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen this morning.
This is a vicious attempt to try to breach the security of our Embassy in Sana’a. Fortunately, it did not succeed. The Embassy security upgrades that we have been putting in place over the past seven, eight years were, during this attack, effective in stopping the attack, along with the response of the Yemeni forces as well as the response of our American Embassy personnel.
Sadly, there was a loss of life. There – at current count, there is one U.S. Embassy guard, a Foreign Service National, a Yemeni national, who was killed during the attack. Several Yemeni security forces – personnel were killed in the attack. I don’t have an exact accounting for you at this point. And then, of course, some of the terrorist attackers were killed in the attack. I don’t have an exact count for you at this point of those numbers.
The attack occurred early morning hours, Washington time, probably about 3 o’clock in the morning. Staff – the initial reports of the attack – filtered back here to Washington. The Secretary was informed first thing this morning as soon as we had details. She spoke with our Ambassador in Sana’a, Ambassador Stephen Seche, probably about a quarter to 7:00 this morning to get an update on the Embassy, the security situation there.
At the moment, the Embassy is closed. Consular services until further notice will be closed, although we are reaching out to the American community in Yemen. We have issued two Warden Messages, one giving an update on the security situation and the second just a reminder regarding personal security and to maintain vigilance during this period of time. We are encouraging all American citizens in Sana’a and in Yemen to register with the Embassy if they have not yet done that. And that is – that is in terms of – in terms of the updates I have for you, about it.
I do have a – why don’t we go ahead and bring up the overhead. What I’m going to do is I’m just going to – if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to step away from the podium for a second. I’ll give you an idea of where the attack occurred.
We understand that there were two vehicle-borne bombs that were part of this attack. It was a sophisticated attack involving vehicle devices as well as personnel on foot. The first vehicle bomb exploded in this area right around the guard post. This is the main entrance right here. This is the chancery building here. So this is the main entrance. These are some – almost like Jersey barriers that were put in place as part of the upgrades. So we do – so the first vehicle exploded about here. Several minutes later, and we observed on videotape a vehicle going back and forth through these areas. It finally exploded in this area, which is very near a pedestrian entrance to the Embassy. In between the first and the second explosions, we observed attackers on foot taking positions in this area. And it’s our initial assessment that the attackers intended to try to breach the wall in this area and then have the attackers go on foot through this breach in the wall.
They didn’t succeed in this case, and it’s a testament, again, to the kind of security upgrades that we have put in place. It’s a testament to the vigilance and the response of the security personnel around the Embassy at that point in time. And we are looking at what further security steps we might take in the coming days to make sure the Embassy is protected.
And with that, I’ll take your questions.
QUESTION: To go back to when you said the attack – the attackers tried to breach where? Where is that again?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, let me show you. I’ll show you two –
QUESTION: Sorry, I wasn’t clear.
MR. MCCORMACK: Sure, sure. I’ll show you – just to recap, this is the main entrance here. This is the main entrance to the Embassy. The first vehicle explosion was in this area right around the guard post. This is a guard post right here. The second explosion took place in this area. Right in this area there’s a pedestrian entrance to the Embassy and you can see the perimeter of the Embassy here. We’ll also provide this to you digitally if you don’t have your own –
QUESTION: Thank you, thank you.
MR. MCCORMACK: – resources as well.
QUESTION: I have a – you want to ask about the specific attack; I have a question about Yemen.
MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.
QUESTION: I have an attack question and then –
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MR. MCCORMACK: All right.
QUESTION: What about U.S. Embassy staff? Have most of them – are most of them being evacuated?
MR. MCCORMACK: Ah, yes. They – first, let me – a very important fact that I didn’t give to you at the top. All American Embassy personnel, American personnel are safe and accounted for. They were, during the attack, or immediately after the attack, they were in lockdown in the chancery building which I pointed out to you.
QUESTION: And what about responsibility for the attack? Who are you looking at?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there’s a group that has claimed responsibility and we’re looking into it. We’re following up some suspicions that we have about this particular group. I would – I think it’s safe to say after talking to the security personnel, that this – the attack bears all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack, where you have multiple vehicle-borne devices along with personnel on foot, seemingly in an attempt to try to breach the perimeter and actually get inside, get inside the perimeter and, again, try to inflict further damage and inflict loss of life.
QUESTION: So, then you’re saying you have suspicions about the group that claimed responsibility? You’re saying it looks more like al-Qaida than anyone else?
MR. MCCORMACK: I’m not going to make any definitive judgments at this point, just because talking to security personnel, they haven’t given me any definitive judgments. But in talking to them this morning about this attack, they said it is fair to say that this attack in Sana’a bears all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack, the kinds of attacks we’ve seen in the past.
QUESTION: So as far as you’re concerned, it’s not this Islamic Jihad group?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, the reason – one of the reasons why I hesitate here is the world of these terrorist groups and their specific associations and linkages are rather murky. Sometimes you have – I guess one way to put it is, you know, subcontractors or front groups for al-Qaida. They might use different names. And at this point, I’m not prepared to draw some exact linkages for you. But again, if you look at the facts on the ground, it does bear a lot of the – it looks a lot like what we have seen in the past from al-Qaida.
QUESTION: So just to be absolutely clear on this, you’re not officially blaming al-Qaida –
MR. MCCORMACK: No.
QUESTION: – but you’ve said similar to the kind –
MR. MCCORMACK: All the hallmarks of –
QUESTION: Because it’s more sophisticated, it has the hallmarks of them? And that this other group could be a subcontracted –
MR. MCCORMACK: It could be – it could have some relationship to al-Qaida. Again, I’m not, at this point, prepared to say that just because our security people aren’t prepared to say that. But it was a sophisticated attack. It was – you had multiple vehicle-borne explosives. You had personnel on foot who were armed. And you know, again, it’s just looking at a – the initial reports and the initial facts, it would appear that there was an attempt to breach the wall so that these terrorists could enter the compound and, again, inflict further damage and harm.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) First of all, there’s been a lot of –
QUESTION: Can I stay on the attack quickly?
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, it’s a concern that we’re talking about who is responsible for the attack, and there’s been a lot of concern lately – is there something wrong with the audio – with U.S. officials talking about al-Qaida and the Maghreb and the fact that they could be reconstituting in Yemen. There’s been – you know, in your recent – in your last terrorism report, there was concern about the mixed counterterrorism efforts by the Yemenis. And there’s been a lot of tension in the relationship with Yemen over the last, let’s say, year to year and a half about Yemen’s counterterrorism efforts.
Do you think that Yemen could have done more to prevent terrorists, kind of, you know, constituting in Yemen, which could have prevented an attack against U.S. interests?
MR. MCCORMACK: Look, as we’ve said many times before, they have to be right once; we have to be right every single day.
In terms of Yemen and the Maghreb, you know, not, again, to draw any particular linkages between the two, but they’re ongoing problems. There’s an ongoing issue with al-Qaida violent extremists in the Maghreb, in the upper Saharan region. There has been an ongoing problem with violent extremists and terrorists in Yemen. The Yemeni Government is aware of the problem. We work very closely with them. They’ve made a great deal of progress. As a matter of fact, Secretary Rice just this morning spoke with President Saleh of Yemen. And you know, we want to underscore with the Yemeni Government that it is critically important to work with them on issues of counterterrorism.
The threat from violent extremists is also one potentially that could be directed at the Yemeni Government, so they fully comprehend the seriousness of the issue. Have they done a lot in the past? Yes. Could they do more? Yes, absolutely. We want to work with them to try to build up their capabilities in this regard. You know, I’m not going to try to do, at this point, any forensics about the attack. The Yemeni security forces, once the attack took place, did respond very well. They lost people in the course of this attack. So we’re going to work closely with the government not only on the security of the Embassy and our personnel, but also more widely in fighting terrorism in –
QUESTION: But just one quick follow-up. Are you – is there a serious concern that Yemen is becoming one of the new safe havens and, indeed, a base for al-Qaida operations?
MR. MCCORMACK: You know, Elise, I’m – at this – I am not – I don’t have any information to – that would indicate a, quote, “new base” or a new center. There’s been a terrorist problem of which Yemen and – or groups or individuals on Yemeni territory have been a problem. Very clearly, that goes back. We’ve known about that problem for quite some time.
In terms of its relative importance to the other areas where these individuals seek safe haven or attempt to operate from, I can’t give you a relative gauge. It’s a problem, as there are problems elsewhere around the world. You talked about another one in the Maghreb and in the northern Sahara area. So we don’t have a choice to just focus on one. We have to focus on all of them, and we’re going to do what we can, working with the Yemenis to make sure we address the issue effectively.
QUESTION: Well, when you say – just one last one – when you say that, you know, there’s a terrorist problem in Yemen, there’s – terrorists exist there, you’re not saying that you think that the government is providing safe haven to them?
MR. MCCORMACK: No, no, no. I mean, there are plenty of examples all around the globe. You look in North Africa, where they have quite active programs to seek out violent extremists, to break up terrorist cells, to try to prevent the ability of these groups and individuals to operate, yet they are still there. It’s a tough problem. And what is needed is continuing effort, close working relationships with these governments and in these areas to try to root out the problem of violent extremists, which are a problem for these governments and they’re a problem for us.
QUESTION: Coming going back to the attack, were you hearing chatter that something was imminent? What can you tell us about any kind of heightened alert that the Embassy was on? I’m not sure if it’s always on heightened alert in Yemen, but was this something that was –
MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t speak to any – you know, the relative level of, quote, “chatter.” You know, Sana’a is an embassy where we are acutely aware of the particular terrorist threats. I think earlier this year, there have been several reports of, for example, mortar rounds being launched into the general area where embassy compounds are. So there’s – you know, and going back over the years, you can see various threats, various threats against U.S. forces, various attacks against U.S. presence in Yemen.
QUESTION: The U.S. is negotiating with Yemen over the – there are about a hundred Yemenis in Guantanamo Bay. How do attacks like this sort of affect your negotiations? If you were to send back another hundred – a hundred of these people from Guantanamo Bay, would that make it even more unstable? I mean, would you take this into consideration?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, what you look at is the capacity of these governments to, in ways that are consistent with our guidelines, meaning a couple of things: one, they’re treated humanely when they return; and two, they don’t walk out the back door when they go in the front door. You look at the capacity of the government to handle these kind of – a new influx or inflow of these individuals, and you look at the capacity of the government to follow through on its commitments, once those commitments are made.
With Yemen, that’s still an ongoing process. And it’s no secret that we’ve had some issues in the past with the Yemeni Government in terms of the incarceration of individuals involved in terrorist acts. The most recent one involved somebody who was supposed to be in a Yemeni jail for life, but we subsequently found out that they were on some sort of release program or supervised released program. That person is now back –
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, that person is now back in custody. We have a program now where we periodically check to satisfy ourselves that that individual is in – remains in custody.
QUESTION: But isn’t that an indication – the fact that the USS Cole guy was given a kind of weekend leave order, isn’t that an indication that they’re not doing enough?
MR. MCCORMACK: Like I said, it’s an ongoing topic of discussion. And it does say something that we have yet not – that we have yet to get to the point where we can move some of these individuals from Guantanamo to Yemen.
QUESTION: What does it say?
MR. MCCORMACK: Excuse me?
QUESTION: You said it says something, but what does it say?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, that we’re not to the point yet where we are able to satisfy ourselves of, at the very least, those two conditions I talked about: treatment of the prisoners and the fact that they would remain in custody.
QUESTION: The Secretary announced that she is going to organize a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Maghreb to speak about the fight against al-Qaida in the Maghreb during the – in the margin of the UN General Assembly. Do you plan to invite Yemen to this meeting?
MR. MCCORMACK: Let me check. We’ll see. I – at this point, I think it’s limited to the Maghreb countries, but we’ll see if there’s any thought to expanding it.
QUESTION: And any idea whether Mauritania will come?
MR. MCCORMACK: We’ll see. There are certain issues.
MR. MCCORMACK: Yes.
QUESTION: Sean, can I ask you specifically (inaudible)?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah.
QUESTION: We’ve been hearing that two suicide bombers included in the attack and that one of them was shot. Do you have any information on it?
MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t give you that kind of granular detail in terms of the numbers of attackers who were killed in the course of this attack. We know at least of the two vehicle-borne bombs, and one can assume from that that there were at least two of them that were killed by their own hand. But beyond that, I don’t have any other information.
QUESTION: Did you – feel free to tell me that I was late and it’s my fault for missing this. Did you talk about the ordered departure and there were – the removal of that order less than a month ago?
MR. MCCORMACK: No. We didn’t talk about that.
QUESTION: Okay. So that –
MR. MCCORMACK: We’re – right now, what we do in the wake of these kinds of incidents, we have the Embassy’s Emergency Action Committee that meets to take a look at what security precautions – additional security precautions, if any, might be needed, what additional steps might be taken to ensure the safety of American personnel. Back here in Washington, we also have an interagency group that takes a look at all of those kinds of issues, things like authorized departure, ordered departure. At this point, I don’t have any news for you in change of the status.
QUESTION: Well, I looked back, though. Presumably, since the ordered departure that had been in effect for non-emergency personnel and their families, that had been in effect since April and it had been lifted August 16th. Presumably, the reason that that was lifted was because you thought that the threat had somehow subsided from the attacks that were in – the attacks in March and April. Is that correct?
MR. MCCORMACK: I can’t speak to the deliberations that went into the decision, Matt. I mean, those take place separate from public affairs considerations. I’m not involved in those. But we have security professionals, both in Sana’a as well as here, who take a look at our posture in terms of personnel and what is prudent, given the facts on the ground and given what they see in terms of threat.
As I pointed out, Sana’a is a place where we are acutely aware of the terrorist threat or the threat from violent extremists, and so it’s something that our folks look at every single day. The only thing I can say in response to the question is the – you know, we take the steps that we believe are prudent, based on the facts as we know them.
QUESTION: Well, right. But, at some point in August, it was determined that it was okay for the –
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: – non-emergency personnel and their families to go back. So was that – I mean, we can – I guess we have to assume only that there was a judgment made that the threat had diminished – the threat that existed in April when they were ordered to leave had gone down.
MR. MCCORMACK: Look, Matt, I can only deduce along with you – again, I have not – I’m not part of those deliberations and I didn’t, frankly, ask the question, the historical question. The only thing I can say is, you know, facts as we know them: (a) American personnel and their families are safe, and that (b) we take a look on almost a daily basis at our posture. And if we feel as though we need to take steps, as we have in the past with ordered departure or authorized departure, we will take those.
The last thing we’re going to do is put anybody’s life at risk. People understand, as we’ve seen today, that American personnel serving overseas serve in some dangerous places or places that have the potential to be dangerous. We’ve seen that borne out once again today. But we manage that risk. And we’re not going to take any steps or do anything that we think unduly puts any of our personnel or their family at risk.
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah.
QUESTION: For the first bomb at the guard post, were guards fired upon? How did it initially start?
MR. MCCORMACK: Libby, I don’t have that level of detail. These are – we’re still sorting through a lot of the first reports. We’re sending teams out to Sana’a to do the forensics on this, to continue to gather information, whatever physical evidence they might have, whatever videotapes might exist as well as doing interviews. So in the span of a couple of hours, I’ve been able to gather this level of detail for you. If we can offer some more in the days ahead, yeah, we’ll try to get that for you and detailed as best we can. But right now, that’s all we have.
QUESTION: Sean, is that an interagency team or an FBI team or –
MR. MCCORMACK: I believe it’s – I’ll check for you. I believe it’s an interagency team, but let me check for you. Anything else on the attack?
QUESTION: Another subject. Thank you, Mr. McCormack. On Northern Epirus, American citizens from Northern Epirus, following the precise advice of the Department of State, attempted to reclaim their properties in Albania. Thus far, not a single Greek ethnic was successful. I wonder, Mr. McCormack, if the Department of State is prepared to tell Sali Berisha to stop violating (inaudible) law and allow rightful owners to reclaim their properties.
MR. MCCORMACK: Lambros, let me check to see if there’s anything that we would say about that, anything that we would believe that falls in – falls within our purview of comment.
QUESTION: One more?
MR. MCCORMACK: No.
QUESTION: Sean, I wonder with the General Assembly opening coming up, what does the Secretary think about the Secretary General’s tenure so far? He was elected with a reformist platform and unfortunately, different problems around the world and policy just kept – have taken most of his time. What’s your assessment so far of his tenure?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I haven’t talked to her about it, but – specifically about your question. But just based on listening to her and her interactions with him, she thinks that he’s doing a fine job. You know, the UN is comprised of a number of member states, and each individual member state can offer their opinion. We think he’s doing a fine job. We’re working very well with him on a number of issues. He has a hard job. You know, he has a hard job. He has a number of different constituencies beyond the United States. Obviously, we’re – we play an important and active role in the UN, you know, across the scope of its operations, whether it’s peacekeeping or humanitarian operations or management reform. So he has an agenda he is working through. I know that there are a number of things that he wants to accomplish. And I know he has his eye on the ball in trying to accomplish those things.
All of that said, when you get into these kinds of jobs, whether you’re UN Secretary General or Secretary of State or other – any other high-level job, you quickly find out that you have a number of other issues that require your attention beyond those that you would like to focus on in terms of your agenda. That doesn’t mean you don’t stop pushing your agenda forward, but there are also a number of other things that come up that require one’s attention in these kinds of jobs. But we think he’s doing a fine job.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of concern at the moment about Pakistan. The tensions have gone up in the region because of the issue of cross-border raids. How do you answer that? How are you dealing with these tensions and how concerned are you about them?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the – I guess intra-regional tensions have been there for quite some time. They go back well beyond our most recent involvement in the region along these border areas and elsewhere.
Look, we’re concerned about the security along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. We think it has – the stability of that border region and the ability on each side of the border to have governmental control has implications not only for the individual countries but also, more widely, for the region. You’ve seen a lot of attention from the United States on this issue recently. You’ve seen a lot of attention from Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. They know it’s a problem.
The issue of security in that – in those Federally Administered Tribal Areas has implications for Pakistan, has implications for Afghanistan. So we want to work effectively with both – and separately with Afghanistan and with Pakistan. And also, we want to bring them together to try to effectively fight this region. The last thing you want is to have violent extremists to be able to exploit any sort of gaps, either political or physical security gaps that exist along that border.
QUESTION: Specifically, about tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan over the – over U.S. troops going over into Pakistan, this has become an issue. It’s being mentioned a lot in the press and a lot by analysts.It – how is the State Department viewing this tension at the moment?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, in terms of specific reports, I’m not going to offer any comment beyond what I have already offered, which is really none, on those reports. (Laughter.) That’s a very honest appraisal.
I will say that we do have a close working relationship not only through military-to-military channels, but political-to-political channels with the leadership of President Zardari and his government, as well as with the military. You’ve seen a recent example of that with the visit of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Pakistan. We also have other military-to-military liaisons. Those are critically important for the relationship. It’s also critically important to keep open those channels of communication to talk about how most effectively to deal with this issue of violent extremists in that border region. You have a number of different angles you have to address. You have to address the security angle. You have to address the political angle and the economic angle.
Fundamentally, however, these are issues that Pakistan needs to deal with. This is Pakistani territory, Pakistan sovereign territory. So they need to address those issues. We are happy to talk about it. We are happy to cooperate to the extent that cooperation is welcome. But we do make clear that there is an important security interest not only for the United States and the region, but for the globe regarding the security in those border areas.
QUESTION: On North Korea, do you have any reaction to The Washington Post reports that North Korea has confirmed continued working on developing long-range ballistic missiles?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I got asked about, I think, an engine test yesterday.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) reaction to this –
MR. MCCORMACK: And again, I don’t have any further information for you on those news reports of a test of an engine that would be suitable for a long-range ballistic missile. I would only note, as I did yesterday, that any work in that regard would be contrary and in contravention of UN Security Resolution 1718.
QUESTION: Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, was seen in Beijing recently. And we’re wondering if the U.S. Government was aware he was there, what his activity was, do you have any further information on his father’s health, and if there’s been any developments generally in the Six-Party Talks.
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, on the last of those, we obviously keep open channels of communication with all the parties of the Six-Party Talks to try to move the process forward. And in order to move the process forward now, what you need to see is North Korea act on a verification protocol. I know you’re tired of hearing me say that, but the issue remains. So we’re going to continue to try to move the issue forward. We’re looking for action from North Korea, and we’re trying to engage the other members of the talks so that they can use what leverage they might have with North Korea to move the process forward.
In terms of the presence of Kim Jong-nam in Beijing, I don’t have any information for you on that, nor do I have any further comment on Kim Jong-il’s health.
QUESTION: On Japan, the Japanese police have issued an international arrest warrant for two Americans and one Brit who were involved in some anti-whaling activity in the Antarctic Ocean in 2007. They’ve also requested that Interpol issue a blue notice, which requires the member countries to provide information and whereabouts of those individuals.
Any comment from State on that?
MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll have to get you some – an answer. I’m not – I wasn’t aware of the issue.
QUESTION: About Russia, President Medvedev today issued an executive order for the delimitation of the northern border in the Arctic region. I wanted to know if – what is the reaction of the State Department and what the State Department – or what U.S is doing in the Arctic region.
MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll have to get you an answer on that, Sylvie. I know that there’s been a great deal of concern, especially among the northern countries, and we have joined them in those concerns, about Russian activities around the Arctic Circle. I hadn’t seen this particular news report or this – I hadn’t heard about this particular action. We’ll get you a response this afternoon or, at the very latest, by this afternoon.
QUESTION: On a different topic, Sean. There has been some violence between Hindus and Christians in the eastern part of India, i.e., and some of it’s based on religious issues. Do you happen to have anything on that?
MR. MCCORMACK: Nothing in particular beyond, you know, the idea that within any multiethnic, multi-confessional democracy, there is an important need for tolerance and understanding. We see that in India. Occasionally, you do see incidents of tension and violence flare up. Those are issues for the Indian people and the Indian Government to deal with.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. MCCORMACK: Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 11:20 a.m.)
dpb # 154
Released on September 17, 2008