SANAA, Yemen — More than 50 people were killed in a deadly attack in the Yemeni capital Thursday when militants penetrated the headquarters of the nation’s Ministry of Defense in a two-stage assault that began shortly after the start of the workday.
Security officials said the attack began about 9 a.m. when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vehicle at one of the ministry’s entrances. Taking advantage of the confusion the explosion caused, a second vehicle broke into the ministry’s perimeter, disgorging gunmen wearing military uniforms who opened fire, engaging soldiers stationed inside the ministry in a lengthy series of gun battles.
The gunmen also attacked staff and patients at a medical clinic inside the ministry compound that is popular with Yemen’s elite.
At least four foreigners, all medical workers, were among the dead, authorities said.
The death toll rose throughout the day to at least 52. Those included a prominent judge taking part in Yemen’s ongoing Conference of National Dialogue, a government-sponsored effort at settling political differences, and a cousin of Yemen’s president, who was killed as he was visiting a patient at the clinic.
The ministry’s building sustained extensive damage, while the windows of many nearby buildings were blown out. Gunfire continued to be heard near the building into Friday morning. Roads near the building remained shut off as a protective measure. Estimates by Defense Ministry officials of the number of attackers ranged from 15 to 30. There was no word on how many of them were continuing to fight.
No organization immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, the most brazen in Sanaa since May 2012, when a suicide bomber dressed in a military uniform blew himself up in the middle of a rehearsal for a military parade, killing more than 100 soldiers.
Suspicion fell, however, on al Qaida’s local franchise, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with analysts pointing out that the two-stage assault was similar to a 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy here, when al Qaida militants used a car bomb to breach the building’s outer security perimeter, allowing gunmen to open fire on security forces and those waiting outside.
The tactic also was used in recent attacks on Yemeni military installations in the southeast of the country.
“We need to keep in mind that the tactics used today resemble the tactics used in the attacks in Shabwa and Mukalla,” said Fernando Carvajal, a Sanaa-based analyst, referring to a province and a city, respectively, in the country’s south. “And I think this, in addition to the fighters’ decision to choose a soft spot within the Ministry of Defense, suggest the work of al Qaida.”
The Ministry of Defense is in the center of Sanaa. Other key government buildings, including Yemen’s central bank, are nearby.
The Yemeni government, headed by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who replaced longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh following a 2011 Arab Spring-inspired anti-government uprising, faces challenges on several fronts as it attempts to return stability to the conflict-wracked nation. Secessionists are battling government forces in the south, there are tensions between Salafi and Shiite rebels in the north, and political divisions continue in the capital.
Yemeni Defense Minister Mohamed Nasser Ahmed, who is in the United States heading a military delegation to Washington, has been targeted in numerous assassination attempts; he’s seen as one of Hadi’s closest allies.
Many in Sanaa speculated that the attack might be tied to continuing power struggles within the Yemeni military that trace their origin to the 2011 defection of military strongman and former Saleh ally Ali Mohsen. Early in the day, some went so far as to raise fears of an attempted coup, speculation that itself served as stark evidence of Yemen’s lingering instability.
Regardless of who was behind the attack, many shocked residents said the larger message of the attack remained the same: Yemen is an unpredictable and volatile place.
“We can debate whether this was al Qaida or something else,” said Ali, a cab driver who was ferrying passengers away from the security perimeter blocking the road to the ministry; he declined to identify himself further for security reasons. “But for us, you can almost say it doesn’t matter. There’s no security, and we have to figure out a way to continue to live our lives knowing that something like this can happen at any moment.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.