A terror attack in Yemen's capital has underscored a deepening security vacuum and raised the risk level to civil servants and members of the military, one of the few sources of reliable jobs in the Arab world's poorest country.
Al Qaeda's local franchise is suspected by some to be behind this and other recent attacks on military installations in Yemen. Thursday's attack on the Ministry of Defense killed at least 52 people, including seven foreigners, during a prolonged battle inside a heavily guarded compound.
The incident comes less than three months after a deadly series of attacks on military installations in Yemen's southeast. In September, gunmen staged bloody attacks within the space of two weeks that bore marked similarities to Thursday’s attack in Sanaa, including the use of suicide car bombings to break through defenses.
Yemen has also seen a spike in assassinations of military and security officers, both in Sanaa and in other parts of Yemen. The US military has conducted small-scale training of Yemeni forces in order to beef up their counter-terrorism capability. Many residents of the capital have relatives working for the military, a major employer in Yemen.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday's attack. Suspicions largely fell on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemen-based franchise of the global terrorist group. Analysts said the attack bore many of the hallmarks of AQAP.
“Rather than the parts of ministry building housing the offices of military higher-ups, the attackers appeared to focus on medical clinic, which is less secure,” says Fernando Carvajal, a Yemen-based analyst. “The aim appears to have been to get as high of a death count as possible – something that’s a signature of groups like AQAP.”
As Yemenis headed to work on Thursday, anticipation of the coming weekend soon turned to widespread panic and terror. Explosions punctured the sounds of morning gridlock as smoke filled the skies of Sanaa; traffic soon drew to a standstill as news spread of the attack.
It emerged that fighters had penetrated the Ministry of Defense. An initial car bomb shattered windows and caused chaos in the vicinity, allowing a second vehicle filled with gunmen in military uniforms to break through the perimeter of the ministry itself. This was followed by intermittent gun-battles that left many dead, including doctors and patients inside the ministry’s medical clinic.
While suspicions fell on AQAP, some Yemenis also speculated that it could be a result of divisions inside the military. The attack came as Defense Minister Mohamed Nasser Ahmed led a delegation to the US. Some raised the possibility that rival factions were trying to capitalize on his absence from the country.
Regardless of where they place direct responsibility for the attack, however, Yemenis pin the blame mostly on a government that seems too weak or distracted to provide security for its people, even in the capital itself.
“It doesn’t make much of a difference who is behind this – whether it’s the AQAP we imagine or something else,” says Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni writer and political activist. “Ultimately, it’s a sign that the current government is unable to guarantee security – something that is one of its most basic duties to its citizens.”