Yemen’s war on al-Qaida spills into the capital

Two attacks in 48 hours puts Sanaa on edge.

Tribesman in Yemen celebrate anti-terror operation 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tribesman in Yemen celebrate anti-terror operation 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
SANAA, Yemen – The fight against al-Qaida is being waged some 300 kilometers (186 miles) away along Yemen’s restive Gulf of Aden coast, but the country’s capital of Sanaa is starting feel its impact.
Over the span of about 48 hours last week, two vehicles loaded with explosives and a pedestrian suicide bomber were apprehended by authorities on the cusp of executing their terrorist plots.
The walking bomber, according to an intelligence consultant who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity due security concerns, was targeting Sanaa’s Shumaila post office.
“But the bomber balked at the last second, ripped off his explosives belt and tossed it toward the post office while at the same time shouting at onlookers to flee,” he said.  “State security forces quickly apprehended the young man and identified him as a soldier in Yemen’s Revolutionary Guards,” an elite branch of the military.
The bomber’s affiliation with Yemen’s military raises troubling questions about the ability of the still-divided and largely unprofessional forces to protect state assets against a local al-Qaida affiliate, Ansar Al-Shari’a, which has made dramatic inroads into a vast stretch of territory east of Aden , Yemen’s second city and largest seaport.
On May 21, the group infiltrated a military parade rehearsal in Sanaa. One member detonated his PET-laced ordnance belt at the conclusion of the morning’s exercises in Al-Sabeen square, killing nearly 100 soldiers and maiming hundreds more. A second bomber, according to intelligence sources, is said to have been present at the scene as well. “He was captured before he could carry out his attack,” the source said.
On its official Facebook page, Ansar Al-Shari’a claimed responsibility for the mass killing, saying that it was in retaliation for crimes committed by military operations in the south.
Yemen’s new president, Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, launched a brutal assault on Ansar Al-Shariah in mid-May, dispatching at least 10,000 troops and over six brigades, according to Yemen’s spokesperson in Washington. Backed by U.S. warplanes and military trainers, the offensive in about a month appears to have purged the al-Qaida militants from cities they had controlled in Shabwa and Abyan governorates for upwards of a year.
But celebrations in Abyan and Shabwa stand in sharp contrast to rising fears in Sanaa. In one of the two foiled car bomb plots there last week, security officials found plans to carry out attacks on various embassies in the capital city.
These plots against foreign embassies and a post office suggest that al-Qaida may be broadening its scope of domestic targets, which until now have mainly focused on the Yemeni military. American support of Hadi’s regime -- as well as that of his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out of office late last year by anti-government protestors inspired by the Arab Spring -- is also a source of contention for the Islamic militants.
Ansar Al-Shari’a’s umbrella organization, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has traditionally launched attacks at Western and American targets. With Washington’s small but growing footprint in Yemen -- unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes have risen this year to unprecedented levels in Yemen and a few dozen military trainers were deployed to the country in May – Americans are growing more exposed. Ansar Al-Sharia’a took credit for attacking three US military instructors leaving their hotel on May 20.
Asked who would be targeted next in the rising tide of suicide attacks, a prominent tribal sheikh in Marib governorate, which abuts Shabwa and has long been a center of al-Qaida activity, said he expected high-ranking military officials to remain in the crosshairs.
“We need to remember that the Al-Sabeen attack was aimed at Yemen’s defense minister, who has been very successful in the war against al-Qaida so far,” he was quoted as saying. 
Another top defense official, Brigadier General Salim Qatan, who orchestrated the fight in Abyan, was assassinated in Aden on June 18 by a suicide bomber posing as a panhandler.
“General Qatn was also doing a great job leading the fight against Ansar Al-Shari’a,” he said. “So to answer your question, anyone in high position in military who’s doing a good job fighting al-Qaida has a bounty on their head.”
Yemeni government spokesman Mohammad Al-Basha told The Media Line that their forces remain on alert.
“Yemen’s military and law enforcement authorities remain vigilant and are working tirelessly to foil and intercept terrorist acts. al-Qaida has to understand that today they are also facing an alert public that is sickened by terrorism’s brutal and indiscriminate violence,” Al-Basha said.
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