The Islamic State's Pretense of Strength in Yemen

4 MINS READJun 18, 2015 | 16:56 GMT
The Islamic State's Pretense of Strength in Yemen
Yemenis walk near wreckage June 18 after five bombings hit Shiite mosques and offices in Sanaa.

The Islamic State launched multiple suicide bombings in Sanaa aimed at Houthi rebels' political headquarters and two mosques June 17, the eve of Ramadan. According to the Yemeni Health Ministry, the attacks killed at least four people and wounded at least 50 more.

It was the Islamic State's fourth attack against mosques in Sanaa. The first and most deadly occurred March 20, when suicide bombers killed over 140 people in the bombing of two mosques during midday Friday prayers. Because al Qaeda has eschewed assaults on places of worship, the attack was unexpected and Islamic State suicide bombers were able to easily sneak into the mosques.

In response to the March attacks, authorities increased security at religious buildings, making it more difficult for militants to carry bombs or weapons into places of worship. To evade security, the Islamic State has adjusted its tactics and started planning more complex attacks. On May 22, the group sent a suicide bomber into a mosque with explosives hidden inside his sandals. Once detonated, the bomb resulted in 13 injuries but no deaths because of the small amount of explosives. Security officers at a mosque thwarted another would-be bombing on May 29 when they detained another Islamic State suicide bomber with explosives in his shoes.

Like those greater attempts at concealment, the use of car bombs in the June 17 attacks was an Islamic State attempt to evade security measures protecting mosques. No longer able to easily sneak bombs into the building, militants turned to larger explosives. However, photos of the vehicles involved in the attack reveal that the devices were quite small and ineffective for car bombs. Much of the vehicles' frame and gears were intact, and much of the damage was caused not by the initial explosion, but by the resulting car fires. In a country where water is scarce because of the Saudi air campaign, the fire department probably lacked the resources to douse the cars before they were completely incinerated. Uncharacteristically for large car bombs, the explosives used in the attack also inflicted little structural damage on nearby buildings.

The weakness of the explosives led to a low death count, despite the fact that multiple vehicle bombs were detonated. In short, the attackers got little return for their investment in explosives, vehicles and bombers.

Through the mosque bombings, the Islamic State in Yemen, known as Wilayat Sanaa, is attempting to raise its profile and highlight its capabilities. Following the establishment of an Islamic State franchise in Yemen, the group and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have fiercely competed for men and resources. The latter has conquered large sections of territory in recent months and now rules most of Yemen's Hadramawt governorate. It has also captured huge quantities of weapons and cash and liberated hundreds of jihadists from prison.

By attacking mosques, the Islamic State is attempting to distinguish its target set from that of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. It is also attempting to spark the type of sectarian violence that has worked to the benefit of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. 

However, Yemen is not Syria or Iraq. There is no such thing as a Zaidi, or Houthi, mosque in Yemen because Houthis and Sunnis frequently attend the same mosques. Attacks targeting religious buildings may appeal to some radicals, but they will also alienate most Yemeni Muslims. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has spoken out loudly against the Houthis and has effectively attacked Houthi military targets. But the Sunni group has also refrained from attacking Houthi civilians and mosques and has strongly condemned the Islamic State for doing so. 

Even as al Qaeda decries mosque bombings, its own vehicle bombings, directed against Houthi forces and Saleh loyalists, have demonstrated that the group is able to construct and deploy large and devastating vehicle bombs. This should not be a surprise, given that al Qaeda has a team of competent bombmakers led by the innovative Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri.

Wilayat Sanaa's assaults on religious sites in Yemen, including the June 17 attack and the May sandal bombings, are meant to distinguish the Islamic State affiliate from other militant groups in the region. But while its violent, sectarian attacks have drawn public attention, the group is still far less capable than its al Qaeda rival. 

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