Yemen: Clear Evidence of Jihadist Activity

6 MINS READApr 8, 2008 | 22:09 GMT
STR/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. State Department ordered its non-emergency staff and their families to leave Yemen on April 7. This came a day after militants attacked a compound housing U.S. workers in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, which followed two recent attacks on oil infrastructure in Yemen and an attempted attack against the U.S. Embassy there March 18. The style and targets of the recent attacks suggest that jihadists, although amateurs, are active in Yemen and are likely to remain active there for some time.
The U.S. State Department on April 7 ordered its non-emergency staff and their families to leave Yemen. The order came a day after three mortar rounds were fired on a compound housing U.S. workers in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, at approximately 7:30 p.m. local time, causing minor damage and no injuries. The Yemen Soldiers Brigade (YSB), an al Qaeda-linked group, claimed responsibility for the attack April 7. The attack on the Western housing compound is the latest in a string of attacks in Yemen:
  • July 2, 2007: Ten tourists (most of whom were from Spain) were killed by a bomb attack in Marib, near Sanaa, by al Qaeda members.
  • Jan. 18: Two Belgian tourists were shot dead, most likely by jihadists, in eastern Yemen.
  • March 18: Attackers (most likely YSB) fire three mortars at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. The mortars, fired from the back of a pickup truck, missed their target and hit a girls' school instead. One police officer was killed and 17 other people were wounded.
  • March 27: A pipeline operated by French firm Total in the Hadramout region of eastern Yemen was attacked with a timed explosive (the Yemeni government claimed that this blast was not militant-related, but given the pattern of attacks, this assertion is difficult to believe).
  • March 29: A Chinese oil field in the Hadramout region comes under mortar fire. The YSB claims responsibility for the attack.
  • April 6: Three people fire mortars from a car on the edge of a Western housing complex in Sanaa. The attackers did not seem to direct their fire at a specific target, suggesting that the attack was carried out hurriedly and without any refined aiming capabilities.
(click image to enlarge) The mortar attacks in March and April are less professional and require less skill than the larger-scale attacks Yemen has seen over the past eight years. The 2000 attack against the USS Cole in the port of Aden and the 2002 attack on the Limburg oil tanker — both carried out by al Qaeda — were suicide attacks using bomb-laden boats. While operating boats in a suicide mission does not require a considerably high level of skill, it does require more dedication and resources than launching mortars from the back of a vehicle. STRATFOR has suspected that jihadists from Somalia and Iraq would enter Yemen as other forces pushed them out of those countries. But the tactics used in the most recent attacks in Yemen suggest that less-trained Somalians, or even Yemenis, rather than battle-hardened insurgents are behind the attacks. The recent mortar attacks do resemble the 2000 and 2002 maritime attacks and attempted attacks in 2007 in that they focus on foreign oil interests. Given Yemen's lack of resources, the oil infrastructure is by far the country's most valuable asset. Yemen is not as strategic a target as neighboring Saudi Arabia, where Western interests are concentrated. However, Yemen produces approximately 240,000 barrels of crude per day — most of which is sent to China, India and Thailand. Yemen also sits on the Bab al Mandab strait, which links the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and sees shipments of an estimated 3 million barrels of oil daily. Energy-starved countries such as China and India are willing to take the security risk of sending energy workers to less-stable countries such as Yemen (and there have been no reports that any country other than the United States has ordered personnel out of Yemen). The Yemeni government has other domestic disturbances on its hands that prevent it from responding swiftly to jihadist attacks. In the south, near the main port of Aden, protesters are threatening to enflame residual animosity after the 1994 Yemeni civil war. The government sent tanks to quell the violence that has claimed several lives since protests began March 30. In the northern province of Saada, a simmering conflict between anti-government al-Houthi rebels and pro-government tribes has caused hundreds of casualties since it began in June 2004. These two conflicts and the constant threat of unruly tribes in the restive hinterlands are, at the moment at least, distracting the government from concentrating on al Qaeda activity in Yemen's oil-producing regions. Another issue slowing the government's response to al Qaeda attacks is the many Salafists employed by the Yemeni security and intelligence apparatus — a consequence of the civil war in 1994. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh formed an alliance with Salafists and recruited jihadists to fight against Marxist forces in the south. This alliance continues today, and Saleh derives a significant amount of political support from radical Islamists. Many of the state's key institutions (including the military) employ Salafists, making any crackdown on militant Islamists in the country politically untenable for Saleh. Though the recent attacks in Yemen appear to have been carried out by relatively inexperienced militants, this is not to say that Yemen is not a dangerous place. Its weak and disconnected oil infrastructure, massive amounts of easily-acquired weapons and remote deserts make for an excellent jihadist training ground. The militants behind these attacks could be cutting their teeth in preparation for bigger operations. The announcement by the U.S. State Department to remove all non-essential staff should not be taken lightly. Carrying out an operation such as that carries huge costs, and the State Department would not issue such an order unless it had significant evidence that more attacks are to come. The pattern of these most recent attacks is undeniable, and in a place like Yemen, attacks are not likely to end any time soon. With al Qaeda involved, the violence could increase in magnitude and/or spread to other countries in the Middle East.

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