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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.

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.