The war against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been brought to Sanaa’s door.
On Monday, as tightly-packed formations of soldiers from Yemen’s Central Security Forces drilled for Tuesday’s celebration of Unification Day, a suicide bomber disguised among the ranks of troops detonated his explosives. The explosion killed over 90 and injured hundreds more.
Monday’s attack comes after a Yemeni government military offensive begun last week. Yemeni forces, backed by on-the-ground U.S. logistical and intelligence support, surged against AQAP and Ansar al Sharia, an insurgent group widely considered to be affiliated with AQAP. The ongoing offensive aims to dislodge the groups from towns seized in southern Yemen early last year. In its statement of responsibility for the suicide attack, AQAP claimed it was responding to this offensive.
The latest attack has shocked a city which has until now been insulated from the war against AQAP. The theory that former president Ali Abdullah Saleh created and controlled AQAP to manipulate the West – that Al Qaeda doesn’t really exist – is not uncommon in the capital. Sana’a is far removed from the war in southern Yemen – the seized towns, the airstrikes, the Taliban-style rule. AQAP was an abstraction, and those few attacks that occurred within Sana’a were small in scale and focused on foreign targets such as diplomats, embassies, and tourists. Monday marks the first time Yemenis have been explicitly targeted in an attack of this size. Al Qaeda’s presence has been made real.
In daring to directly target Yemenis, however, there exists a grim silver lining. An analysis for West Point’s Counter Terrorism Center last fall determined that AQAP has survived in Yemen, where previous al Qaeda iterations failed, by balancing its global ambitions with local grievances; by managing to stay globally relevant while maintaining a lower profile. This attack could represent an overreach by AQAP and lead to the galvanizing of popular support for the war against AQAP that has been expanded by new president Abed Rabuh Mansour al-Hadi.
By killing more Yemenis in a single strike than any of the unpopular drones ever have, AQAP could be losing its balance. It may have forfeited the skepticism of an insulated populace and received their hate in return, inviting a response far greater than it can handle.