A suspected al Qaeda attack on an intelligence headquarters in south Yemen shows that Islamist militants are switching their attention from Western targets to high-profile government installations.
In a bold assault last Saturday, gunmen killed 11 people at the southern regional headquarters of a Yemeni security intelligence agency that has been trying to staunch the country's worst separatist violence in over 15 years.
Yemen blamed al Qaeda for the attack in which gunmen wearing military uniforms raided the headquarters in the port of Aden. If confirmed, it would be al Qaeda's deadliest attack in Yemen since the bombing of the U.S.
Navy warship USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000 that killed 17 sailors.It would also be one of just a small number of high profile al Qaeda attacks directly targeting Yemen's government, which earlier this year declared war on the group's Yemeni arm after it claimed a failed attack on a U.S.-bound airliner in December.
The United States has been helping Sanaa out in the crackdown, fearing its campaign against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan had prompted the group's hub to shift to Yemen."Al Qaeda now feels under great pressure in Yemen, not only from the Yemenis but also from the United States," said Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre.
"Its members are suffering from a sense of uncertainty and they have become very isolated ... This attack was a show of strength.
""They tried to deprive al Qaeda from the safe haven they enjoyed. We are witnessing a major shift here," he added.Yemen's Western allies and neighbouring Saudi Arabia have long feared a resurgent al Qaeda wing could take advantage of rising insecurity and weak central control to use Yemen as a base for destabilising attacks in the region and beyond.
Al Qaeda and the Yemeni government have clashed for many years, but the group's high-impact operations have typically focused on Western targets, such as a failed attempt to assassinate the British envoy to Sanaa in April.An al Qaeda attack on the U.S.
embassy in Sanaa in 2008 killed 16 people, including six attackers.Last year, an al Qaeda suicide bomber tried to kill Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who headed an anti-terrorism campaign that derailed militant efforts to destabilise the kingdom between 2003 and 2006.
Al Qaeda later regrouped in Yemen.This month, Yemen's army shelled militant targets and fought gun battles in the al Qaeda stronghold of Wadi Obeida in the Maarib province that is home to much of the country's oil resources.
Tensions in Maarib have been high since its deputy governor, who was mediating between the authorities and al Qaeda, was killed in May in an errant air strike on the militant group.
The recent battles infuriated al Qaeda. A day before the Aden attack, al Qaeda's Yemen-based regional branch threatened to respond to the state crackdown, calling on local tribesmen to take up arms against the government.
"God willing, we will set the ground on fire beneath the tyrant infidels of (President) Ali Saleh's regime and his American collaborators," the group said in a statement.After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Yemen joined forces with Washington in its fight against al Qaeda. But many saw the Sanaa government's approach to dealing with militants as half-hearted and ineffective.
Wanted suspects went uncaptured and foreign Islamists were able to attend training camps in Yemen's impenetrable mountains and deserts, where militants may benefit from tribal protection.
Some officials, including religious affairs minister Hamoud al-Hitar, say Sanaa should return to a policy of engaging al Qaeda in dialogue rather than just using force, which he said simply earned the group more public sympathy.
But after the botched December plane attack, for which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has been charged, Yemen escalated its fight, directly declaring war on al Qaeda.
Washington also stepped in by more than doubling defence spending on its cash-strapped ally and providing technical support."Yemen is still using the same policy as before, the carrot and the stick, but now it is using more force than before," Yemeni analyst Nasser Arrabyee said.
"What happened indicates not that al Qaeda are stronger than before, but that it is exploiting the situation in the south," he said, referring to violence between southern separatists and security forces. The so-called Political Security Organisation (PSO) building that was attacked presented an important and easy target.
It has been a major tool in Sanaa's pursuit of militants but its southern office has recently been busy dealing with separatism.
The same offices were the scene of a 2003 jailbreak in which 10 militants escaped, including suspects in the USS Cole attack. In 2006, 23 al Qaeda suspects tunnelled out of the PSO building in Sanaa including al Qaeda current leader Nasser al-Wahaishy.
"This was an attempt to exploit a gap in the Yemeni security system," analyst Ali Seif Hassan said of the attack in south Yemen, where security forces are distracted by a small group of armed separatists mounting a budding insurgency 20 years after unification of north and south.
Tied up with separatists, an undertrained and ineffective PSO may have dropped the ball on al Qaeda's presence in the south where militants hide out in often remote areas near centres of separatist activism.
"There is a kind of vacuum or fissure between the different parts of the security apparatus," Hassan said. "Al Qaeda is determined to exploit these cracks."