Al Qaeda's Deadly Warning

A terrorist strike in the heart of Yemen sends a message to the new Yemeni president and his American allies.

In the most deadly single act of terrorism that Yemen has seen in years, last week an Al Qaeda operative disguising himself as a Yemeni soldier launched a detonator attached to his waist in the middle of a hundreds of troops in the capital city of Sana. The soldiers, who were assembling for an annual military parade to commemorate the unification of North and South Yemen twenty-two years earlier, were completely caught off guard by the attack, as were top officials from Yemen’s newly installed national unity government. The saddest part of the entire ordeal was that the troops had virtually no idea what was happening. They could not spot the bomber before he blew himself up as the explosives around his waist were concealed by his military clothing. Shocked and confused troops scrambled to help wounded colleagues after the explosion ripped apart the venue.

In all, approximately ninety-six soldiers were killed in the blast, with more than two hundred others wounded. The explosion itself was relatively small, yet the fact that the suicide bomber was so close to the soldiers assured the casualty count would be high. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the affiliate of the original Al Qaeda terrorist movement that U.S. officials regard as its most dangerous branch, quickly claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement, calling it revenge for the U.S.-supported and Yemeni-led military campaign against militants in the South.

If the aim of this act of terrorism was to attract media attention, then it succeeded beyond the terrorists’ wildest dreams. The attack garnered coverage worldwide, from newspapers in the region to websites in the United States and Europe. The operation was so horrific that the secretary general of the United Nations and the UN Security Council both felt the need to denounce it quickly and publicly. The White House was also pushed into the forefront, condemning the bombing in the strongest terms possible while reiterating Washington’s alliance and friendship with Yemen’s government and people.

Yet beyond simply thrusting its namesake into the international media spotlight, AQAP’s suicide bombing should be seen for what it was: a blatant and direct warning to the country’s new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has both extended Yemen’s cooperation with the United States and pledged to eradicate Al Qaeda’s presence, whatever the costs.

Al Qaeda militants have been bombarded by a combination of U.S. drone strikes and a coordinated Yemeni ground offensive since Hadi was elected in February. Fadh al-Quso, an operative wanted by U.S. authorities for his role in the bombing of the USS Cole, is just the latest high-level commander to have been pinpointed by U.S. drone aircraft. It is not uncommon now for Al Qaeda to lose a dozen members in a single day, each casualty depriving it of a certain degree of talent (although many who have been killed were in fact foot soldiers). The killing of ninety-six Yemeni soldiers is a dire message to the armed forces that Al Qaeda will not continue to lash out at troops with hit-and-run attacks in the South. Instead, the organization appears more than willing to utilize its most deadly tactic to date, suicide bombing, within the government’s center of gravity.

Assessments of the bombing must consider where it actually occurred: in the heart of the Yemeni capital. Until last Monday, AQAP has limited itself to retaliatory attacks on Yemeni security forces and government officials in Abyan, Hadhramaut and Shabwah provinces, areas where the group is at its most concentrated. Hitting a highly sensitive target in Sana demonstrates that Yemen’s most dangerous terrorist organization may have made a concerted decision to bring the fight to where it matters most. George Hoffman, one of the most knowledgeable terrorism analysts in the United States today, seems to agree with this point. “If you can pierce the security that most protects the country, that speaks volumes about its existing capabilities and trajectory. It says the group is growing stronger, not weaker.”

If the capabilities, organizational savvy and operational talent of AQAP are in fact getting stronger, the Obama administration may have to confront the question of whether its main counterterrorism tool in Yemen—unmanned drones—is having any long-term effect on the rate of terrorism within a nation that is fast becoming a central hub for the post–Bin Laden Al Qaeda network.

Daniel R. DePetris is senior associate editor at the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and The Diplomat.