Attack calls US Yemen strategy into question

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.”

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University, cautioned against gauging Al Qaeda's remaining strength in the region based on one attack.

"In December 2009, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group headquartered in Yemen, was stronger than ever before. That has changed some," he said. "In recent months, AQAP has suffered several setbacks. How significant those setbacks have been is difficult to judge from the outside. Whether the attack on Britain's ambassador to Yemen is a one-off attempt or is followed by a more sustained campaign will tell outside observers much about how successful U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts have been in recent months."

Foreign embassies in Sana’a have been attacked before. A suicide attack on the U.S. embassy in 2008 killed 16, including all 6 of the bombers. After U.S.-backed raids on al-Qaeda by Yemeni forces in December and January, Western embassies in Sana’a braced for possible retaliation. The U.S. embassy closed briefly in early January due to unspecified threats.

The neighborhood where the bombing took place is largely residential, and is home to several embassies, the Ministry of Public Works, and two Western-owned hotels. Directly adjacent to the site is an abandoned gas station, a large walled garden and soccer fields.

The explosion shattered windows of neighboring buildings, and body parts were found over a large area around the site. A ten-foot wide radius of blackened concrete marked the site where the bomber detonated his suicide belt, which he was apparently wearing underneath a tracksuit, according to witnesses.

By noon, police and investigators had left the scene of the bombing, and only a crowd of local residents lingered, treating the site as a curiosity and snapping cell phone pictures. The event seemed simultaneously extraordinary and ordinary, and in teashops and juice stands across the street, the day’s business went on as normal. “Thank God it wasn’t worse,” seemed to be the refrain.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.