Qaeda Ally Says Yemen Bomb Was Payback for Attacks
WASHINGTON — A huge suicide bombing in the heart of Yemen’s capital Monday left more than 100 people dead and hundreds wounded, stunning the country’s beleaguered government and delivering a stark setback to the American counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda’s regional franchise, which has repeatedly tried to plant bombs on United States-bound jetliners.
Militants allied with Al Qaeda quickly claimed responsibility for the bombing, in which a man disguised as a soldier blew himself up in the midst of a military parade rehearsal near the presidential palace in Sana, the capital. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in years in Yemen, the dirt-poor south Arabian country that is now central to United States concerns about terrorism.
The militant group, which goes by the name Ansar al Shariah, said in a Facebook post that the attack was aimed at Yemen’s defense minister and was intended to retaliate for the government campaign against Al Qaeda’s southern sanctuaries that began this month. The militants appear to be holding out and inflicting heavy losses on Yemen’s weak and divided army, despite a stepped-up United States campaign of drone strikes and military assistance.
By Tuesday, the death toll stood at 105, hospital officials said. The fatalities spread gloom and mourning over the planned national unity day celebrations for which the slain and injured soldiers had been rehearsing. The day commemorates the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. A full military parade in the vast Saba’een Square, where the attack took place, was replaced by a smaller ceremony at the air defense college close to the presidential residence, Sana residents said.
The suicide bombing brought scenes of horrific carnage to the square in Yemen’s capital, which is heavily fortified and had been spared the worst of the insurgent violence.
“I saw arms and legs scattered on the ground,” said one young soldier named Jamal. “The wounded people were piled on top of each other, covered with blood. It was awful.”
A video of the parade ground posted on YouTube showed throngs of rehearsal participants running in panic and a pile of motionless uniformed bodies after the explosion.
The bombing came a week after President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, visited Sana and soon after the discovery of the third attempt to smuggle a bomb aboard a United States-bound jetliner by Qaeda militants based in Yemen.
The attack took Yemen’s security forces completely by surprise and was likely to further weaken morale among troops who are already angry about poor pay, ill treatment and corruption in the top ranks. Hours afterward, Yemen’s new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, announced the ouster of four high-ranking commanders and delivered a televised address in which he pledged to continue the fight against Al Qaeda “until their eradication, no matter what sacrifices are required.”
Mr. Hadi took power in February from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the longtime autocrat whose unwillingness to cede power had long been an underlying cause of increasing mayhem in the country.
Although Mr. Hadi appears to be cooperating more eagerly with the United States in the fight against Al Qaeda than his predecessor, he faces extraordinary challenges, including a secessionist movement in the south and a legacy of corruption that has severely weakened efforts to take on the militants.
“This changes everything — the soldiers will be so angry and upset,” one midlevel officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The politicians are playing dirty political games, and we are the ones who die. In the south, they are sending soldiers who have fired five bullets in their whole life against Al Qaeda, who fight constantly.”
Monday’s carnage followed an attack on Sunday against three American civilian contractors helping to train Yemen’s Coast Guard in the port city of Hodeida. The contractors escaped with light injuries, State Department officials said.
Witnesses said the attacker on Monday walked from the western part of Saba’een Square, dressed in military clothes, and detonated a suicide belt just before the defense minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, and his immediate subordinates had been expected to greet the troops. Most of the casualties were members of the Central Security Organization, a paramilitary force commanded by Yahya Saleh, a nephew of the former president, according to several survivors.
In the past, Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch — eager to build its popularity with Yemenis — has tried to avoid deadly attacks on rank-and-file soldiers, and has used frequent online posts to urge them to defect. This year, it kidnapped 75 soldiers in southern Yemen and later released them, saying it was doing so on the orders of the group’s commander, Nasser al Wihayshi.
In its Facebook statement, Ansar al Shariah tried to justify the attack by saying that the Central Security forces “committed massacres against demonstrators during the recent revolution” in addition to its attacks against jihadist militants.
The group appears to be less concerned about negative publicity now that it is engaged in an all-out battle to defend the territories it has controlled for more than a year in southern Yemen’s Abyan Province.
That campaign began this month, with the Yemeni military carrying out airstrikes and a heavy ground assault and reaching the outskirts of Jaar, the most important of the militant-controlled towns. But in recent days, many soldiers have been killed, and the effort to retake the town appears to have stalled, witnesses said. Yemen’s most elite counterterrorism unit, trained with American assistance, does not appear to have been deployed.
A senior American official in Washington acknowledged on Monday that the Yemeni military’s southern offensive was experiencing “fits and starts” as army units made up of largely untested conscripts encountered stiff resistance from entrenched militant forces.
“This is an ongoing struggle,” said the official, who follows Yemen closely and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomatic environment. “We need to be patient.”
More ominously, the official said, Monday’s attack in Sana reflects the ability of a militant group like Al Qaeda to “strike when it wishes.” He added, “There is an escalation of attacks, and we’re all worried about the level of violence.”
Monday’s bombing came against a backdrop of increasing American military and counterterrorism assistance in Yemen. About two dozen members of United States Special Operations forces are providing target information for Yemeni airstrikes against militants, senior American military officials said.
Operating from a Yemeni base near Aden, in the southern part of the country, the American troops are using satellite imagery, drone video and electronic intercepts to identify targets for a Yemeni offensive against the insurgents that has intensified this month, the officials said.
“We’re pursuing a focused counterterrorism campaign in Yemen designed to prevent and deter terrorist plots that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and abroad,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday. “We have not, and will not, get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort — that would not serve our long-term interests and runs counter to the desires of the Yemeni government and its people.”
Responding to reporters at the NATO summit meeting in Chicago, Mr. Obama said, “We are very concerned about Al Qaeda activity and extremist activity in Yemen,” adding that “there’s no doubt that in a country that is still poor, that is still unstable, it is attracting a lot of folks that previously might have been in” Pakistan’s tribal areas before the United States began pressuring Qaeda fighters there.