Yemeni security 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Shepherds found the mutilated bodies on Monday of two German nurses and a South Korean teacher who were kidnapped while picnicking in an area of Yemen known as a hideout for al-Qaida.
Experts said the killings bore the hallmarks not of local tribesmen but of jihadist militants who had returned home after fighting in conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
The dead women disappeared in the remote northern province of Saada Friday while on an outing with six other foreigners, including a German doctor, his wife and their three young children. The whereabouts of the six were unknown, the Yemeni government said.
Yemeni authorities announced a state of high alert in the area and were "conducting extensive searches and investigations," according to a government statement. Besides the German family, a British man was also missing. They all worked for World Wide Services Foundation, a Dutch aid group helping with medical care in the province.
The incident is the latest attack against foreigners in this impoverished Arab nation on the tip of the Arabian peninsula where al-Qaida has a firm foothold in its remote areas.
The government blamed the kidnapping on a Shiite rebel group that has been leading an uprising in the province for the past several years, but the group denied it had anything to do with it. Initially, Yemeni security officials had reported all nine were killed, but the government later said six were still missing.
Nearly all past fatal attacks against foreigners in Yemen have been by Islamist militants.
"I think that it would have to be outside sources" that carried out the attack, said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College, noting that the killings, including reports that the bodies were mutilated, bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida.
The killings "represent a nasty turning point in Yemen," he said.
A tribal leader in the area also blamed al-Qaida for the kidnapping. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
In the past, tribesmen have kidnapped foreigners to wrest concessions on local issues from the government - including ransoms, the release of jailed relatives or even promises to build local infrastructure. But they usually treated hostages well and released them unharmed. Past abductions by al-Qaida, however, have ended with hostages' deaths.
"There has obviously been a shift in recent years, and I think you can definitely attribute that to jihadis," said Dan Mulvenna, a counterterrorism expert with the Alexandria, Virginia-based Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies.
Many Yemenis who left the country to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq have returned in recent years and taken up arms against the government using the brutal tactics they learned abroad.
"Certainly there are Yemenis who went to do jihad and have returned, and there are reports that some have left the battlefield in Iraq and some have left Afghanistan ... and there are also foreign jihadis," Mulvenna said.
Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden's family, has long had some degree of al-Qaida presence and the country witnessed one of al-Qaida's most dramatic pre-9/11 attacks, the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in 2000 off the Aden coast that killed 17 American sailors.
But the group's presence has strengthened over the past year. Al-Qaida militants have established sanctuaries among a number of Yemeni tribes, particularly ones in three provinces bordering Saudi Arabia.
In January, militants announced the creation of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a merger between the terror network's Yemeni and Saudi branches. In 2008, the group carried out a string of attacks, including a brazen assault on the US Embassy in San'a in broad daylight in September, as well as two attacks against South Koreans in March.
The most dramatic assault came in 2007 when a car bomber attacked tourists visiting a temple linked to the ancient Queen of Sheba in central Yemen in 2007, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis.
The central government has repeatedly pleaded with the nation's powerful tribes to turn in the militants, but most have refused to comply, citing their own suspicions of the government.
The San'a government's weakness has made Washington hesitant to return dozens of Yemenis currently being held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, which President Barack Obama has promised to shut down. The US apparently fears the freed detainees could come under the sway of al-Qaida.
Yemen hasn't had a good record with its detainees. In 2006, 10 suspects from the Cole bombing escaped in a prison break, while the bombing's mastermind was released once he had renounced terrorism. After pressure from the US, Yemen announced he had been taken back into custody.
Yemen is the Arab world's poorest nation - and one of its most unstable - making it fertile territory for al-Qaida to set up camp. The country is also in a strategic location, next door to some of the world's most important oil producing nations. It also lies just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, an even more tumultuous nation where the US has said militants from the terror network have been increasing their activity.