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Attack calls US Yemen strategy into question

A failed assassination attempt on the British ambassador spotlights efforts to contain Al Qaeda.

Police and forensic officers gather evidence at the site of a suicide bomb blast in Sana'a Apr. 26, 2010. A suspected Al Qaeda suicide bomber targeted the convoy of the British ambassador to Yemen early on Monday, killing himself and injuring three others, but the envoy was unharmed, Yemeni and British officials said. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

SANA'A, Yemen — A failed suicide attack on the British ambassador’s convoy Monday morning shattered windows, terrified passersby and left debris and broken glass scattered on the sidewalks of the capital.

Only the bomber was killed and damage was minimal, but the incident seemed to demonstrate the continued strength of Al Qaeda in Yemen despite American and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts.

Yemen leapt into international headlines earlier this year after the local Al Qaeda affiliate took credit for training and equipping Umar Farouk Abdulmattalab, the Nigerian student who attempted to blow up Northwest flight 253 on Christmas Day.  Since January, United States officials have regularly cited Yemen as a top priority for international counterterrorism efforts.

Like the attempted Christmas Day attack, the bombing here on Monday was a near-miss. The attack occurred early in the morning as the ambassador was making his way to work. The bomber blew himself up next to a large concrete divider, apparently in order to direct the explosion toward the convoy, in the middle of a busy road leading to the embassy. The ambassador’s car was not in the immediate vicinity of the explosion, witnesses said, and an embassy spokesperson said that the envoy was uninjured.

By late Monday, no groups had taken credit for the attack, although the Yemeni Embassy in Washington said that the attack “bore the hallmarks” of an Al Qaeda operation.

“If they had succeeded in the attack, they would have pulled off a major coup,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and Yemen specialist at Princeton University, referring to the international stature of the target. “They are clearly looking for symbolically important targets to make a statement.”

Security concerns have already made the work of embassies in Sana’a difficult, and such targeted attacks may make them even more isolated. The British ambassador, Timothy Torlot, a former deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Iraq, was known as a hands-on diplomat and one of the few in Yemen who still ventured outside protected compounds. 

The attack on Monday served to demonstrate Al Qaeda’s continued strength in Yemen, despite numerous counterterrorism raids by Yemeni forces in the past few months. It called into question U.S. reliance on Yemeni forces to fight the group.

U.S. military aid to the country is set to double this year, to roughly $150 million, with $34 million for the Yemeni Special Forces announced last week. But even as Al Qaeda in Yemen has become the focus of international attention, the Yemeni government remains distracted by internal troubles. The government is battling a secessionist movement in the southern provinces, an on-again off-again war with rebels in the north and wide-scale poverty.

“The U.S. seems to be relying on [Yemeni President] Saleh, and I’m not sure that he is interested in fighting Al-Qaeda. He’s got other things to worry about,” Haykel said. “I don’t think the U.S. knows what it’s doing in Yemen.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/middle-east/100426/suicide-bomber-targets-british-ambassador-yemen-al-qaeda