Yemen: What an Al-Qaeda Assassination Has Exposed

The Yemeni army has had remarkable success evicting the terrorist group from towns it held. But military cohesiveness is weak--and a suicide bomber managed to kill the leader of the campaign.

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Yemeni soldiers hold posters of slain Major General Salem Ali Qatan, the commander of Yemenís southern military region, during a funeral service in Sana'a, Yemen, 19 June 2012. Qatan was leading the fight against al-Qaeda militants in southern Yemen.

Stepping out the door of his home at 8:30 a.m. on Monday morning in Yemen‘s port city of Aden, Brigadier Salim Ali Qatan, commander of the country’s southern military region, boarded a Toyota pickup truck  in a motorcade on the way to his office. The convoy moved slowly through the battered streets of the unstable southern city, wracked by a secessionist movement, collapsing services, and the constant threat of al-Qaeda incursion from nearby Abyan province.

According to military sources who spoke to TIME, a man disguised as one of the city’s many beggars stepped into the road as the vehicles approached. Strapped under his clothing was a heavy belt jammed with explosives. Running up to Qatan’s vehicle as if to beg change from the window, the man detonated the ordnance, leaving the vehicle a tangled mess of metal, and body parts scattered over the streets.

Early government reports claimed that the suicide bomber who attacked Qatan was a Somali national, but his identity remains unclear. What is known, however, is that al-Qaeda in Yemen, having gained territory in the country since the eruption of the revolution that led to the ouster of president Ali Abdullah Saleh, had cut the head off the military command that had put it on the defensive.

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The terrorist group had suffered several recent blows at the hands of the Yemeni army. Indeed, Qatan had recently returned from directing military operations in Abyan province where the army last week ejected al-Qaeda from its strongholds of Jaar and Zinjibar, among others, in a lightning campaign that sent the militant organization on the run to towns further east.

After Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi was installed as Saleh’s successor to the presidency in February, Qatan became the leader of the 31st Armored Brigade and commander of Yemen’s southern military region. A source in Yemen’s Ministry of Defense said that there had already been many attempts on Qatan’s life because of his leading role in the war against al-Qaeda. “After his promotion [to southern region commander] he entered into direct confrontation with Ansar Al-Sharia [an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) affiliate]. They tried to take him out more than once, but this time they succeeded.”

The source, who asked to go by the initials S.A., believes that targeting Qatan, the highest-ranking officer in Yemen to be assassinated by al-Qaeda, was a reaction to the pinch they’ve felt since last week’s joint military and local militia takeover of the militants’ territory. Yet, he places responsibility for the devastating assassination in the hands of Yemen’s security apparatuses, which he claims didn’t do enough to protect Brigadier Qatan.

(PHOTOS: Yemen on the Brink)

Indeed, the Yemeni security services have had little luck recently defending Yemeni officials from assassination attempts. A spate of attacks on military and security personnel by al-Qaeda have put a somber tone on what seemed to be progress in the fight against terrorism, with the security and intelligence units seemingly powerless to stop the assaults. The day before Qatan’s assassination, a remote-controlled explosive device killed a police chief in the eastern city of Mukalla. Just days before that, the political security chief of Yemen’s Marib governorate barely escaped from a roadside explosion targeting his car.

“There isn’t strong enough collaboration between Yemen’s security services, to the point that it allows terrorists to carry out very destructive attacks,” says S.A., describing the fragmentation of control that has plagued Yemen’s armed services, an issue only just being attended to by President Hadi. The new president has made some bold moves since his inauguration to rid the armed forces of Saleh loyalists, sacking Saleh’s half-brother, air force commander General Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmar, and Saleh’s nephew, special forces commander General Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh. Yet it would seem that this has not tightened ranks enough to prevent strikes on key figures like Qatan.

To add to the list of challenges facing Yemen’s military is poor preparation of both soldiers and security intelligence units. Belall Al-Sohbany, an officer in Yemen’s air force, told TIME, “The Yemeni security apparatuses still suffer from a tremendous lack of experience.” He says, “There’s no training in investigation techniques, or in the field of anti-terrorism.” Al-Sohbany claimed that, despite the military’s recent successes taking al-Qaeda strongholds, 75% of the soldiers in Abyan are untrained.

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What’s more, Al-Sohbany also thinks that the government in Sana’a underestimates the tenacity and adroitness of al-Qaeda and its allies. “The government is capable of defending itself,” he said. “The reason [for its exposure to attacks] is that the government hasn’t given a real priority to dealing with al-Qaeda properly. They deal with them as if they’re not as intelligent as they are.”

S.A. believes that one key to continued military success against al-Qaeda in Yemen is cooperation from international partners. Yet, both S.A. and Al-Sohbany agree that it is most important for Hadi to continue restructuring the military. “There are officials who don’t fulfill their necessary role,” S.A. said. “There are careless military leaders who aren’t concerned with the country’s well being or the danger of al-Qaeda.”

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, told TIME that the Yemeni government must now effectively govern the towns it wrested from al-Qaeda control and provide services–something it has not done for years. If not, it may find itself in a quagmire, with Abyan remaining outside of Sana’a’s control. As for al-Qaeda’s future in this uneasy corner of the Arabian peninsula, he says, “The next few weeks will also be key for AQAP. Will it revert to its pre-2011 form of living in rural areas and carrying out hit-and-run attacks, or it will attempt to reassert control over the territory it has lost in its attempt to implement its own version of Islamic law?  The group in Yemen is at crossroads.”

PHOTOS: Dispatch from Yemen