Sanaa, Yemen—As a mob of angry demonstrators descended on the heavily guarded United States Embassy in Sanaa, many observers seemed stunned into disbelief. The breach of the embassy itself was unthinkable. And the sheer anger displayed by the demonstrators, even according to many Yemenis, was chilling. But even if a video regarded as blasphemous prompted Thursday’s events, the factors at play involve much more than a movie.
Ostensibly, what sparked the siege on the embassy were statements by a number of religious leaders—amplified by social media and word of mouth—who condemned the film and called for protests. But while many in politically contentious Sanaa seemed eager to tie the protests to a prominent figure or faction, the truth was far less simple. Most of those taking part in the demonstrations lacked any obvious signs of religiosity: rather than bearded men or tribesmen in traditional garb, the bulk of those at the embassy were young men in Western clothes, united, if anything, by their rage.
Vowing to sacrifice themselves for the honor of the Prophet Mohammed, they marched towards the embassy, and, upon arriving at the walls surrounding the compound, apparently had little difficulty overwhelming the troops guarding the building. Scaling walls, they moved to break glass, set cars alight and loot whatever they could, leaving graffiti expressions of “God is Great” and “Death to America” as testaments to their sentiments prior to being pushed out by Yemeni security forces about an hour later.
As word spread of the siege, few were surprised that protests against the video had occurred. But the logistics of the attack on the embassy compound left many Yemenis incredulous. Among the most secure buildings in the capital, the American Embassy bears greater resemblance to a fortress than the sumptuous diplomatic residences of less volatile capitals.
In the context of Yemen’s contentious political scene, it was hard to believe that the breach of the embassy merely represented a security failure.
Although current president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi formally replaced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in accordance with an internationally backed power-transfer agreement this February, the former president is a major player behind the scenes, as his relatives control key branches of the Yemeni Armed Forces.
Most of the troops guarding the embassy hailed from the Central Security Forces, a branch of the Yemeni military led by Yahya Mohamed Saleh, a nephew of former president Saleh. And in the wake of Thursday’s events, local observers expressed suspicions that the former president had a hand in the attack, or at least allowed it to happen.
“It’s nearly impossible to imagine that the embassy could be breached with such ease,” said one Yemeni analyst, commenting the evening after the demonstration. “It’s not hard to suspect that something beyond incompetence was involved.”
But while tensions within Yemen’s divided military may have played a contributing role in allowing for the embassy breach itself, the origins of the anti-American rage displayed by demonstrators lie elsewhere.
Thursday’s events were not solely a response to the controversial film, which few Yemenis—including those taking part in the demonstrations—have seen. Rather, the film struck a nerve in Yemen because of long-simmering resentment of American policy.