Al-Qaeda Brings the Fight to Yemen’s Capital

The Yemeni army may have successfully rousted AQAP from its strongholds but now the group's operatives have increased their assaults on Sana'a itself

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Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters

People gather in front of the gates of the police academy where a suicide bomb attack took place in Sanaa on July 11, 2012.

The doctor’s trembling hands were still wrapped in blood-stained surgical gloves. Outside the gate of the Yemeni capital’s police academy, Dr. Ahmed Idrees was speaking to a crowd of cameras and microphones about the latest assault on Sana’a. Two hours earlier, an assailant later identified as Mohammed Nasher al-Uthy, 20, hurled an explosive into a crowd of cadets leaving the academy for a weekend at home. Ten were killed and fifteen wounded. Al-Uthy himself lost several limbs in the blast, dying in a hospital an hour after the attack. Noting similarities with an incident in May, Idrees said, “The characteristics of this attack are the same we saw in Saba’een Street.” The suicide attack on Saba’een had been massive: 96 soldiers were killed while rehearsing for a military military parade commemorating Yemen’s unification. In both cases, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based franchise of the terrorist organization, claimed responsibility.

After the Yemeni army’s lighting campaign forced Al-Qaeda from its strongholds in the south of the country, AQAP is striking at the heart of the government. Assaults in Sana’a are on the rise. In the space of less than two months, five bombings have been attempted by Al-Qaeda-affiliates. The first was Saba’een Street. Weeks later, a bomber wearing an explosive belt panicked moments before blowing himself up in a post office, throwing his belt over a wall and fleeing. Early this month, Colonel Mohammed Al-Qudami of Yemen’s Political Security was killed by a car bomb as he drove through the capital. Two days later a Sana’a police chief, Saleh Al-Mustafa, watched his car explode minutes after getting out. The police academy is only the latest target in a wave of attacks Al-Qaeda has vowed to keep up.

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As Doctor Idrees spoke to the cameras, dazed cadets, forensic specialists, and riot police in body armor were still sidestepping the puddles of blood beginning to blow over with trash. The anger with the new government’s seeming inability to prevent the violence was palpable. Marwan Al-Sabai, a cadet who narrowly escaped the bomb attack, told TIME: “There are Yemenis who carry out these attacks to show that this government is not able to control the country.” Saleh Ali, a soldier, shouted out against the Yemeni government in front of the police academy’s gates: “It’s a failure. A complete failure. We want the intelligence services to arrest criminals like this before they succeed.”

“If the political situation remains the same, then we are definitely going to witness more and more attacks,” notes Abdullah al-Faqih, a political science professor at Sana’a University. He points out that Yemen’s government remains weak, fragmented by loyalties to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Muhsin, commander of the 1st Armored Division, which sided with protestors during last year’s uprising. “The new government has no power whatsoever. They’re either with Muhsin or with Saleh.”

Al-Faqih went on to say that attacks like the one targeting police cadets in Yemen’s capital are carried out while security forces turn a blind eye. Pointing to the persistent ambitions of the former president, who was finally forced from office in February after more than three decades in power, Al-Faqih says: “It’s in the interest of Saleh’s camp to convince the international community and regional powers that he’s the only guy who can save this country, and keep it relatively stable.”

Arafat Mudabish, editor of Al-Tagheer Net news website, agrees. “Sana’a remains divided among followers of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Brigadier Ali Muhsin Al Ahmar, and Sheikh Sadeq Al Ahmar”–another notable in last year’s uprising and the head of an influential tribal group. Mudabish said that each of these figures use the attacks to discredit forces loyal to the other, or to instill a sense that they are the only player capable of saving Yemen from the Al-Qaeda threat.

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Troubled by pending reforms threatening their interests, the factions spin the assaults on government personnel to distract both the international community and Yemen’s new president, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. In the past, critics often accused Saleh of allowing Al-Qaeda and its affiliates to carry out attacks and claim territory in Yemen in a desperate bid to divert attention from the popular uprising that eventually forced him from the presidency.

The trick hasn’t lost its appeal, some say. A Yemeni journalist specializing in military and security issues, who asked to go by the alias Ahmed, notes that the restructuring of the armed forces, a key tenet of the power transfer deal that ushered in the Hadi government, poses a threat to the powers of Saleh, Muhsin, and others. “In order to distract the President from the army restructuring, they make him busy with attacks,” Ahmed says.

According to Al-Tagheer Net’s Mudabish, the only way to bring stability to the volatile country is through international pressure, especially from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s powerful neighbor. Without a concerted international effort, the outlook is bleak. Ahmed says grimly, “If the situation remains as it is, Al Qaeda will walk right into the presidential palace.”

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