Yemen suicide bombings a reminder: Sunni-Shiite tensions matter there, too

Nearly 70 people were reportedly killed Thursday in a pair of suicide attacks in Yemen that bear the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
People flee after a suicide attack in Sanaa October 9, 2014. A suicide bomber killed at least 42 people on Thursday when he detonated an explosives-laden belt in a district of the Yemeni capital where the powerful Shi'ite Muslim Houthi movement had planned to hold a rally, medics and witnesses said.

When Iranian-backed rebels took over Yemen’s capital last month, they met little backlash – until now.

At least 47 people were reported killed Thursday and more than 75 wounded in a suicide bombing in Sanaa, which targeted the rebels, known as Houthis. In a separate attack in the eastern part of the country, at least 20 Yemeni soldiers were killed in an attack on their outpost by a suicide car bomber and other fighters, officials and witnesses said.

The attacks mark a worrying escalation of violence for one of the region’s most fragile countries, which is riven by internal conflicts as well as regional tensions. Some suspect the local Al Qaeda franchise, which the US has tried to degrade with drone strikes, is exploiting those tensions to strengthen its power base.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has not claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attacks, which bore the hallmarks of previous AQAP attacks. The group recently threatened to target the Houthis. 

The attacks came amid a backdrop of rising sectarian tensions in Yemen, which some say have been fueled by regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis, whose religion is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, have for years been backed by Shiite Iran; in 2012 US officials alleged the Islamic Republic was sending them weapons, including Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), as well as cash.

They have fought an on-again off-again war with Yemen’s central government since 2004, complaining of marginalization in Sanaa, and even engaged briefly in a cross-border conflict with neighboring Saudi Arabia. 

Weak central government

According to an in-depth Reuters report last week, one of the Houthis' main grievances was “the emergence of the hard-line Salafi Sunni strain … which they believe was being encouraged by Saudi Arabia.” 

Yemen’s central government has never been strong; the country’s powerful tribes and rugged landscape make it difficult for anyone to control. But after a popular uprising forced out longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, the government has arguably become even weaker, due in part to political infighting.

Last month Houthi rebels took advantage of these divisions, capturing ministry buildings and forcing the government to agree to a UN-backed power-sharing agreement. This week, the government appointed a new prime minister who apparently was not to the liking of Houthis, who called for a massive protest rally Thursday.

The appointee relinquished the post, but today's suicide bombing in Sanaa targeted the site of the rally, indicating a sectarian backlash against the resurgent Houthis.

Iranian-Saudi rivalry

The precise extent of Iranian and Saudi involvement in Yemen is unclear, but both regional powerhouses have a stake in its direction. Iran has used proxy forces elsewhere, including Lebanon and Syria, to pressure its Saudi rival. Saudi Arabia meanwhile has real concerns that a jihadist upsurge in Yemen, with whom it shares a porous border, could threaten its own security. 

The US also has an interest in preserving the security of Yemen, which it has counted as a counterterrorism partner in its fight against AQAP. The US embassy in Sanaa evacuated many of its staff during last month's Houthi offensive. 

The bombings mark a devastating turn of events for beleaguered Yemenis. They also serve as a wakeup call for those who had been focusing on Islamic State, the militant group in Iraq and Syria, to the exclusion of other serious security concerns in the region.

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