SANAA, Yemen — As black smoke billowed into the sky above the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Thursday, Sept. 13, demonstrators hacked at the thick glass windows of the security office entrance with pick axes. To the cry of "Death to America!" the angry mob burned an American flag and set SUVs alight inside the heavily guarded compound.
But something was not quite right. How had a few hundred unarmed protesters managed to breach the security of one of the most fortified embassies in the world?
The beginning of the answer to that question lay at the outer perimeters of the security cordon and at roadblocks on the streets approaching the U.S. embassy.
As protesters stood chanting on low concrete blocks designed to stop vehicles approaching the compound, Yemen's Central Security Forces, in their camouflage uniforms, blue berets, and distinctive bright blue-and-orange arm patches looked on. Fifty-caliber machine gun "dushkas" mounted on the back of pick-up trucks, stationed under sun-protecting shelters, menacingly faced the crowd.
Then, without so much as a raised hand from the soldiers, protesters walked straight though the gaps between the yellow and black striped blocks. Like a gentleman holding a door open for a lady, the soldiers, with their AK-47s slung over their shoulders, stepped back, letting the chanting mob through. And as the angry mob marched further towards the embassy building itself the soldiers walked with them, some even smiling.
Yemen's Central Security Forces, created by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, remain under the command of his nephew Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, who enjoyed a warm relationship with the U.S. embassy here in Sanaa for years. The U.S.-trained and funded counterterrorism troops also fell under his command. The relationship had been a necessary close one in America's strategy to combat the country's notorious al Qaeda network.
On the day this February when his uncle handed over power to the country's new president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi, at the presidential palace, Yahya and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein greeted each other like old friends. With laughter and a firm, lingering handshake, they clasped each other's elbows in the midst of a packed room of dignitaries and a throng of domestic and international media.
Since February, however, things have slowly begun to change in Yemen's security forces. The powerful extended-family network of commanders -- created by Yemen's former ruler -- has been eroded. Hadi's presidential decrees, released over recent weeks and months, have shifted military leaders to lesser positions and altered the long-standing alignment of control in the country's divided armed forces. During a year of political unrest, Yemen's army split following the massacre of 53 demonstrators in Sanaa's Change Square on March 18, 2011. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, one of the country's most powerful commanders, defected, throwing the weight of his First Armored Division behind the anti-Saleh protest movement.
After an attempt on Saleh's life in June 2011 saw the injured president whisked away to neighboring Saudi Arabia for much needed medical care, the two sides of the army eventually came to blows. In September, when the violence peaked, civil war seemed almost inevitable. But following Saleh's surprise return to Sanaa, resulting in further bouts of fighting, he finally agreed to step down in November 2011, handing power to his long-standing vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi. Dramatic changes in the structure of Yemen's military appeared essential to the process of political transition and the survival of his successor.
But it hasn't been an easy transition: In April 2012, when Saleh's half-brother and commander of the air force, Gen. Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, refused to step down, pick-up trucks full of gunmen, protesting his sacking, forced the closure of the Sanaa airport, which also acts as Yemen's primary air force base.