SANAA, YEMEN — An attack on a vehicle carrying five British embassy workers in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Wednesday has underscored the increasing threat posed by Al Qaeda extremists in this south Arabian nation.
Witnesses told the Monitor that two militants shot rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which they were hiding in bags, at an oncoming car before sprinting down a side street to escape the scene at 8 a.m. local time on Wednesday.
“The two men ran down the street covering their ears, yelling that there was a gas explosion,” says Ali Al-Hakimi, one witness who lives nearby the scene of the attack. “They did this so we would think they had nothing to do with the explosion.”
The attack injured one Briton, as well as two bystanders, a Yemeni women, and her daughter. Britain’s second-ranking diplomat in Yemen, Fionna Gibb, was in the car, but escaped uninjured.
In a separate incident, a Frenchman who worked for the Austrian oil company OMV was shot dead by a company guard at the OMV compound in Sanaa yesterday. According to Yemen’s official news agency, Al Qaeda was not involved in the murder.
“I think that this really demonstrates that there is still a considerable and ongoing threat,” said Christopher Boucek, Middle East associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a phone interview. “It has demonstrated that this is a resilient and increasingly agile organization.”
In a similar episode last April, Al Qaeda unsuccessfully tried to kill British ambassador Tim Torlot by exploding a bomb in front of his vehicle while he was driving in Sanaa.
“When they don’t first succeed in doing something they try again,” Mr. Boucek said. “This shows that AQAP is still focused on the same set of targets.”
Steady increase in attacks
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s branch of the terrorist organization, launched an increasing number of attacks against Yemeni security forces in southern part of the country throughout the summer.
Fighting climaxed to a five-day battle between the government and militants in Hawta, a city known for being a haven for insurgents, in September. Additionally, AQAP recently released a hit list of 55 government officials whom they are targeting.
While the focus of the war against Al Qaeda in Yemen has primarily centered around military action, such as drone strikes, in Yemen’s tribal-dominated countryside, yesterday’s terrorist attack showed that the organization is still capable of carrying out its calls for violence in the capital – far from the known militant strongholds in southern Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
Fighting Al Qaeda a top priority
Yemen’s government, which is set to receive a huge increase in aid from the international community, has announced that its making the fight against Al Qaeda its top priority. But analysts have continually called into question the government’s capability to stamp out Islamic extremism within its borders, which is especially troublesome given the magnitude of the threat AQAP poses.
“It is this whole amalgam of Al Qaeda in Yemen that is worrisome,” Boucek says. “There are militants who want to target the Yemeni government, Saudis militants who want to target the Saudi government, and those who want to target foreigners. All these guys are finding that Yemen is a safe place to be planning attacks.”
In another example of Yemen’s rising importance in American foreign policy, on Monday, US Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns visited Sanaa.
According to a report released by the US embassy, during his trip Mr. Burns reasserted the US’s commitment to supporting the Yemeni government, which faces many challenges to its stability including an armed southern secessionist movement and severe poverty.
“I’m here also to emphasize President Obama’s commitment to a broad, long-term partnership with Yemen,” he said. “A partnership in which we work together toward two key goals: to help Yemen deal effectively with the immediate security challenge that’s posed by Al Qaeda and terrorists who threaten all of us; and second, to work together in support of Yemen’s efforts to deal with serious long term developmental and governance challenges.”