Al-Qaeda Still a Threat in Yemen

Yemen’s military and security services have scored successes against al-Qaeda, but the government is still weak when it comes to gathering intelligence — a key component of the “war on terror,” according to US and EU officials. Abou Bakr Abdallah reports that al-Qaeda sleeper cells are still capable of carrying out attacks in the country.

al-monitor A relative of a police academy cadet, killed in a suicide bombing attack, cries as he holds his coffin during a funeral procession in Sanaa July 14, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi.

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Jul 26, 2012

The Yemeni government is facing obstacles in the information and intelligence war against the al-Qaeda cells scattered across most of the country’s provinces. In contrast to the army’s easy victories against al-Qaeda's main strongholds in the provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, along with the air strikes that dealt al-Qaeda heavy losses in their leadership, accomplishments in the intelligence field have been sparse. Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, has failed to curb al-Qaeda’s attacks on the state’s military and security institutions.

The state’s weak intelligence capabilities are worrying Yemeni officials and the international envoys who recently conducted a series of discussions with government officials in order to strengthen the government’s capacity in this regard. Yemen’s allies see good intelligence as vital to the war on terror, especially since al-Qaeda decided to move away from direct confrontation and toward guerrilla warfare.

Yemeni officials recognize that tightening security procedures and increasing the armed forces’ ability to repel al-Qaeda attacks in Sanaa and other areas has not prevented al-Qaeda cells from scoring several successes. Over the weekend, al-Qaeda resumed its attacks in the province of Hadramaut, where an assassination attempt injured a senior military commander. In Aden, security forces foiled an attempt to destroy the Political Security (intelligence services) building.

Both attacks came hours after Sanaa discovered a terrorist plot that involved attacks against military and security targets by al-Qaeda suicide bombers dressed in military uniforms. This plot is similar to the recent attacks that targeted military and security centers in retaliation for the army’s destruction of most of the al-Qaeda centers in the southern province of Abyan.

The attacks represent major challenges to Sanaa and to the international community in their fight on terror. The attacks were carried out amid debates and disagreements regarding how much international support Yemen needs for adequate intelligence-gathering capacities. It should be noted that the military succeeded in destroying al-Qaeda strongholds, camps and arsenals, but that despite these operations, al-Qaeda cells remained safe. They continued to collect funds and launch surprise attacks.

Yemeni officials stated that intelligence efforts and information gathered from detainees allowed the security services to arrest many sleeper cells in the capital and other provinces. They said that those cells were planning to launch attacks on Yemeni and Western targets.

But Sanaa has confirmed that the threat still exists, and that dozens of sleeper cells are still operating in several provinces. Those cells are believed to be responsible for most of the recent terrorist and suicide attacks. Al-Qaeda has threatened to send its gunmen into Yemeni cities and take the fight to the government in order to scatter the large-scale campaign it has launched against it in cooperation with the United States and European Union countries.

The Yemeni government has begun to prepare and alert its forces in order to confront one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous plots yet, which, according to Sanaa, involves attacks on military and security centers by suicide bombers wearing military uniforms.

With support from the US and Europe, Sanaa is fighting al-Qaeda by destroying the organization’s capabilities. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda is aggressively trying to open new fronts in different areas. However, al-Qaeda experts believe that the organization is strong in the intelligence field and that its tactics in its long-term battle of attrition with the government are improving. Al-Qaeda leaders have threatened to conduct a guerrilla war in Yemen and launch surprise attacks against Yemeni and Western targets.

The success of the Yemeni security services in dismantling some al-Qaeda cells has indeed reduced the number of attacks in the capital. But the security services have failed in other regions. One example of such a mistake was where al-Qaeda tried to assassinate the commander of air defense unit 190 in the eastern province using an explosive device. The commander was injured. There was also a failed attack on the intelligence branch in Aden.

Experts say that the al-Qaeda attacks — whether they were successful or not — in different parts of Yemen indicate that the organization is able to penetrate deep into the government’s layers of security. The frequency of attacks may thus increase in the future.

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