A car bomb targeting Yemen’s defense minister exploded Tuesday outside the office of the prime minister in central Sanaa, missing its target but killing at least seven soldiers and five nearby civilians.
The wreckage of at least four vehicles littered the scene, which blew out a nearby storefront. Paramedics and police officers rushed to gather the remains of those killed in the attack as dazed bystanders attempted to make sense of the bombing, which occurred in what is one of the most secured areas of the Yemeni capital.
Witnesses said the attack occurred as the defense minister’s convoy left a Cabinet meeting. While the explosion missed the armored vehicle carrying Maj. Gen. Mohamed Nasser Ahmed, ministry sources said that another vehicle in the convoy was destroyed in the blast.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based militant group that American officials have labeled as al Qaida’s most dangerous offshoot.
Coming less than 24 hours after the Ministry of Defense announced the death of Saed al Shihri, AQAP’s second in command, the attack served as a stark reminder of the continuing challenges facing Yemeni security forces despite seeming progress in the battle against local extremists. Shihri, who was reportedly killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike eastern Hadramawt province, was the group’s most senior Saudi member and was believed to have played an important role in its operations and fundraising efforts.
Last year, al Qaida-linked militants took advantage of a power vacuum seemingly engendered by the uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, seizing control of swaths of territory in southern Abyan province. But upon taking office, Saleh’s successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, declared retaking control of the province to be a top priority. Soon after his inauguration the Yemeni military – backed by American intelligence and air support – unleashed a renewed offensive that eventually dislodged the militants from areas they had held for more than a year.
But even as the military gained ground, there was little sign the militants had admitted defeat, continuing to skirmish with Yemeni troops in Abyan while launching a series of attacks in the capital, including a May suicide bombing that left nearly 100 soldiers dead in what also was believed to be an attempt to kill the defense minister.
A key leader of the offensive in Abyan, Ahmed has been the target of at least four assassination attempts since Yemen’s current cabinet was formed in December.
After the attack, Hadi announced the replacement of a number of officials, including Ali al Ansi, who’d headed Yemen’s National Security Agency since it was established in 2002. Analysts said the reshuffling, one of Hadi’s most significant since taking office, was an affirmation of his commitment to making a break with his predecessor. But they added that the attack on the defense minister indicated that re-establishing security remains one of the president’s most important tasks.
“The Yemeni government lacks control over parts of the country, and security in Yemen is rather porous even in the capital itself,” said Gregory Johnsen, author of “The Last Refuge,” a forthcoming book on Yemen and AQAP. “As long as this situation continues, we’ll continue to see attacks like today’s – regardless of who actually carried it out.”