Yemen suicide bomb highlights threat to foreigners, international aid workers

As Yemen confronts the Arab world's poorest economy and an increasingly active Al Qaeda branch, security concerns such as today's suicide bomb stymie international aid workers seeking to help the country.

By , Correspondent

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    Police troopers stand guard at the site of a suicide bomb blast in Sanaa, Yemen Monday.
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A suicide bomb that targeted the UK Ambassador to Yemen today underscored the threat posed to foreigners here and which development workers say is increasingly hindering their ability to bring international aid to the Arab world’s poorest country.

Monday’s suicide bombing, which took place a few hundred yards from the Movenpick Hotel – a hot spot for foreign visitors – “bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda,” according to a statement issued by Yemen’s Interior Ministry.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist franchise’s regional branch, has yet to confirm whether it was behind the attack. But in December AQAP claimed responsibility for an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound flight, which refocused international attention on Yemen as a potential haven for terrorist activity.

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Seeking to bolster impoverished Yemen's regime, which is hamstrung by a rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, international donors have pledged $5 billion in aid.

Donor concerns about corruption, inadequate government resources to process and distribute aid, and the weakening control of the central government in close-knit tribal communities has caused hesitancy in distributing the pledged money. So far, only 10 percent of it has come into Yemen, where some 150,000 Yemenis have been displaced from their homes. Much of it remains tied up in government bureaucracy.

As security precautions have increased in recent months, development workers say they are largely confined to three cities, and have to rely on Yemenis to implement their projects – meaning they are unable to judge for themselves the trustworthiness of their local partners and the efficacy of the programs they are paying for.

“If it continues like this, we will have some problems in the long run, because part of our work is to work together [with Yemenis] and to be present to work with the people. After some time they may ask, ‘Why are the Europeans no longer coming? Is there something wrong? Do they no longer respect us?’ ” said a senior European development worker interviewed before Monday’s bombing.

Eyewitnesses at Monday's bombing

Bystanders at Monday’s bombing said UK Ambassador Tim Torlot’s car stopped on an open stretch of road at about 8 a.m. while an accompanying security vehicle approached the suicide bomber.

“The bomber was wearing a brightly colored sport suit and ran past the security car to one side of the road where there was a wall,” says Hosab Ali Muhammed, a teacher who saw the attack from his house nearby. “The ambassador’s bodyguards suspected him so they drove up to the guy, then he blew himself up.”

Mr. Torlot, whose car quickly fled the scene, escaped unhurt. But the British Embassy has closed its operations until further notice, press officer Chantel Mortimer told the Monitor by phone this morning.

“I’m sure there will be an increase in Yemeni security and we are waiting to hear from the Yemeni Interior Ministry with an update,” she said.

'The real work is on the ground'

Due to security limitations imposed by their governments, most foreign development experts are limited to three cities in Yemen – Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden. Although much of their work can be done from the headquarters’ office, development workers agree project oversight and cultivating local expertise and development skills are difficult without going to the project sites, many of which are in the country’s undergoverned remote areas.

“The real work is always ... on the ground.... You see what is working, what is not working,” says Tom Leiermann, senior expert on historic preservation and economic development projects for the German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ).

He recalls a project in which water piping was installed in backyards, not underground or inside homes. “The way in which it was done from conservation point of view is absolutely unacceptable, and if I would have been on the ground of course we would have developed other solutions.” Once a project’s implementation is bungled, he says, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to go back and change it.

A critical aspect to development work in Yemen is finding local partners who are motivated and not corrupt, something Mr. Leiermann says “you can only find out through direct contact and not over the telephone from Sanaa.”

“Here there are weak institutions, so you cannot [work] by sending money,” he adds. “People will say ‘thank you,’ and put [this money] in whatever pockets. You cannot follow up on the process.... We try our best and still it is useful, but [the conditions] have to change somehow ... for the long term it cannot work like this.”

Security precautions for German nationals have become more stringent over the past year, after a German missionary family was kidnapped in the north of the country in June 2009.

To circumvent such travel restrictions, foreign organizations rely upon trained Yemeni nationals to travel to the sites, implement plans, and report back. But some areas present security challenges for Yemeni nationals as well. One foreign development worker in the southern port city of Aden said local staff had had to delay their work due to violence.

US set to launch a new $121 million program

The US government, which signed a $121 million program in September 2009 “to increase Yemen’s stability ... in vulnerable areas,” remains undeterred, however.

The program, administered by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has three aims: to promote community livelihood, increase employment opportunities, and provide better access to goods and services. It will work in ‘hot spot’ communities, where USAID assesses the threat of AQAP to be the greatest.

These are also the areas Americans cannot travel to, causing some aid workers here to privately express doubts about America’s ability to reach their goals. But US workers are confident in their strategy.

“Our partners are reputable and experienced American and international organizations who work with Yemeni experts and local organizations that have access where Americans do not,” said an American official familiar with US development programs in Yemen. “This implementation approach increases our effectiveness while creating jobs and capacity in Yemen.”

The Yemeni government maintains that despite foreign travel restrictions, it’s possible for foreigners to travel anywhere in the country with a government escort. “We try to advise foreigners not to go to areas where there is still a shaky situation of security, except by arrangements with us... So we escort them, we go wherever they want.

When they finish their tasks, they come back,” says Hisham Sharaf Abdullah, the deputy minister for international cooperation. “There is no place in Yemen called, ‘You can’t go.’”

Oliver Holmes contributed reporting from the scene of Monday's suicide bombing in Sanaa, Yemen.

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