TSG IntelBrief: Yemen: Profound Challenges, Implacable Foes, and Blood Lust
December 6, 2013

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• Over 50 were killed and scores wounded in an audacious attack on Yemen’s Ministry of Defense HQ compound in the capital San’a

• The attack represents another pulling-off-from-the-shelf modus operandi first planned by local al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen in the late 1990s

• It was an AQAP escalatory move to take the fight to the heart of the San’a government

• Seemingly insoluble problems remain for San’a: rebellion in the north, growing opposition in the south, looming economic and water crisis, and AQAP violence.

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The Sign of the Times

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“The young brothers these days, all they understand is blood.”

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In Fall 2007, two US special agents—having deep experience with al-Qaeda investigations and counterterrorism operations—had access to one of Yemen’s native sons, Jamal al-Badawi, just back in custody after his second prison escape. He used those words to describe the rank and file of what was soon to be called “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP). The young men al-Badawi was referring to formed the core of the emerging local terrorist group built around 23 men, al-Badawi one of them, who escaped in February 2006 (and still mostly at large at the time) from a prison in the headquarters of Yemen’s secret intelligence service known as the Political Security Organization (PSO). It was quite a remarkable thing for someone like al-Badawi to say, considering his record of cold-blooded terrorist work: He was the cell leader in Aden answering to the mastermind of the USS Cole attack, Abdul Rahim al-S’afani, aka al-Nashiri. Moreover, al-Badawi was intimately involved in surveillance and logistics for other maritime terrorist plots, from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, as part of al-Qaeda’s operations in Yemen in the late 1990s. One of his brothers was a suicide bomber in the attack on the M/V Limburg in October 2002, and al-Badawi was a close confidant of a key 9/11 operative, Walid bin ‘Attash, among other core al-Qaeda notables. So, here was an al-Qaeda gangster lamenting the out of control violence of the neo-Qaeda members. He said there was no getting through to them, those 22 escapees and their cohorts led then (and now) by two elder guards of UBL’s al-Qaeda, Nasir al-Wahayshi and Qasim al-Rimi.

Al-Badawi, who was actually in a “house arrest” arrangement at the time, was discussing the issue in the context of his being co-opted by the PSO in an effort to dissuade the new breed of violent shabab (“young guys”) from carrying out violent acts—at least in Yemen. It was a program conceived in futility, without any understanding of the impenetrable extremism and blood lust of AQAP’s ilk.

Unsurprisingly, AQAP is claiming it carried out the bold, large-scale attack on Yemen’s Ministry of Defense headquarters. The methods and tactics certainly bare resemblance to modus operandi of al-Nashiri’s plots from the late 1990s. It has remained quite simple and usually lethal: hit the perimeter with a large, high explosives-laden vehicle(s) followed by other delivery vehicles and a lot of “brothers” armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), assault rifles and any assortment of hand grenades, explosives, and suicide vests, and enter through the breeched area, engage any guards still standing and further penetrate the target area to kill as many people inside as possible—without regard for who they are or why they’re there. That includes Muslim Yemenis, foreigners, women, children, anyone. And in the ruthless judgment of committed killers like al-Wahayshi, al-Rimi el al, the victims already received a death sentence because in some manner—by simply being there—they support the apostate regime in San’a and its backers from the West. Period.

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The Attack on the Gateway to Yemen

The December 5 attack on the Ministry of Defense compound in Sana’a is the latest in a series of dark clouds for the Yemeni Government. This attack should be viewed as part of the ongoing AQAP campaign to destabilize the Yemeni Government and ultimately overthrow it. The attack was conducted on a major defense installation in the full light of day in the capital city as the staff was just beginning to report for work around 9 AM. The explosion and ensuing gunfight captivated the population of San’a and ground normal business to a halt. With this attack AQAP has gone from a problem mostly confined to the southern or rural parts of the country to the intent to threaten the regime and defense establishment in the heart of the capital.  

The breeching tactics were similar to AQAP’s 30 September attack on an army post in Abyan province that killed scores of Yemeni soldiers. In both attacks the suicide driver ran the vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or VBIED in the combatting terrorism lexicon, directly to the front gate of the facility and then detonated it. The weapons and explosives for this type of attack are readily available throughout Yemen, from a variety of sources. Quality military-grade high explosives can be obtained in bulk or harvested from unexploded ordnance that still litter battle fields from past civil wars in the south of the country.

This attack was a direct confrontation with the Yemeni military establishment not only in the nation’s capital but also within a stone’s throw of the Bab-al Yemen, the symbolic gateway to the old city of San’a and the scene of fighting in past revolts and coups. Yemeni legend has it that San’a is protected by the Almighty, and any unrighteous attack on her is doomed to failure. An attack at this historic and symbolic point carries a powerful subliminal message to Yemeni citizens.

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A Cascading Series of Problems

The extremists in Yemen have with impunity crossed the bright line which the Yemen government under President Hadi has sought to draw. Hadi has made no bones about AQAP being an enemy of the state; his speeches have been used in its propaganda videos. The AQAP attacks in Southern Yemen over the past year have directly challenged the authority and the ability of the central government to maintain control outside of the capital. At the time of this attack, the Yemeni defense minister was in Washington, D.C., for consultations with US officials. The ongoing drone campaign against AQAP and the Yemeni cooperation with the US remain contentious and leave no room for equivocation between the government and AQAP.  However, even without relentless hunting from above, AQAP would be engaged in blood lust battles for territory, control, and with the San’a regime. AQAP has become in recent months another in a series of cascading problems that the central government is having to face. The Houthi rebellion in the north coupled with a resurgent southern separatist movement present the Hadi government with a host of seemingly intractable problems. Add in tribal tensions, decreasing oil revenues and the looming water crisis, a full-on AQAP offensive in the capital is the last issue the government needs or wants to face.

The persistently opaque nature of Yemeni politics will make it difficult for outside observers to ascertain what steps the government may take to combat or subdue—or continue feckless conversion efforts of—AQAP shabab. Since the late 1970s through the mid 1990s, the Yemeni government aided and supported its sons on the path to battlefronts in other countries. The bill for that policy continues to come due.

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• AQAP will seek to continue the fight against the government in the capital and major cities of Yemen

• Aden will remain a strategic goal of AQAP

• The government will seek to increase its outreach to tribal leaders in order to shrink the base of support and sanctuary for AQAP in the rural areas.  

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