SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni soldiers streamed into the streets of the capital this weekend after a deadly attack on intelligence services by alleged Al Qaeda gunmen, underscoring the impact of what U.S. government officials and experts on terrorism say has become the world’s most active and dangerous offshoot of Al Qaeda.
With dozens of attacks this year on spy and security forces, including deadly raids into the very headquarters of Yemen’s “mukhabarat,” or intelligence branch, Yemen’s newly invigorated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is reshaping the mission, strategy and tactics of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda brand, experts say. And the Yemeni government is now stepping up its effort to confront this insurgency and doing so with pledges of more than $1 billion in military aid from the United States.
At this point, there is a "raging war taking place between Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Yemeni government,’’ said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East politics at the London School of Economics, and a longtime scholar of Al Qaeda.
Diversifying from Al Qaeda’s core vision of mass-casualty attacks upon people of the distant, hated West, Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen have redirected their aim squarely upon the weak, fumbling and corrupt government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh this summer sided more than ever with the United States against the Al Qaeda forces who have made their home in his country, proclaiming Al Qaeda the greatest danger to his country.
Increasing the threat, this is an incarnation of Al Qaeda that has learned from the mistakes of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other battle zones, experts say. This is an Al Qaeda driven by ardent and experienced Saudi veterans of campaigns against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Before, they were hiding in the mountains, in deserted places,” said Saeed Ali al-Jemhi, a Yemeni author on Al Qaeda. “Now, they are hitting in the cities.”
These days, bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda and the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, is believed by many terrorism experts and counterterrorism officials to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Al Qaeda groups in Iraq and in the Sahara have floundered after alienating their Sunni Muslim base. Al Qaeda’s offshoots in Somalia and Indonesia continue to struggle to take form.
But here, Al Qaeda in Yemen, made up of a few hundred members at most, is coordinated, motivated and on the attack, terrorism experts say.
Al Qaeda fighters have hit checkpoints, police stations, intelligence offices and, in June, the high-walled, tightly guarded compound of Yemen’s domestic intelligence agency in the port city of Aden, killing 13 in one well-planned assault. This month, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula published the names of 55 Yemeni security and intelligence officials it intended to kill.
Saturday morning, suspected Al Qaeda gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying guards for one of Yemen’s intelligence branches, according to news reports. The barrage killed at least two aboard the bus.
Yemeni security forces typically have been able to shield the capital, Sanaa, from most of the violence that hits elsewhere in the country; in response to the attack on the bus, Yemeni troops took up positions in roadways throughout the city. Soldiers flagged down vehicles to peer inside at the occupants.
Adding to the pressure on Saleh’s government, the United States in particular has pressed Yemen hard for decisive action after the failed December attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, by a man trained for the attack by Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Last month, an Al Qaeda ambush in a market in southern Yemen helped push Saleh and his largely family-run security forces into Yemen’s first full-on assault on Al Qaeda.
In that attack, witnesses and townspeople said, armed and bearded Al Qaeda fighters came upon a dozen or so Yemeni soldiers in an open-air market in the city of Lowdar. At the time, the souk’s stalls of okra, potatoes, tomatoes, rice and fish were crowded with shoppers buying food to break the daily fast of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
The Yemeni soldiers pleaded for their lives — even handed over their guns, unasked, said Ali Saleh, who was shopping in the market that day.
‘’We are Muslim,’’ shoppers heard the Yemeni soldiers tell the Al Qaeda gunmen.
The Al Qaeda fighters opened fire regardless. By the next day, Aug. 20, at least two of the Yemeni soldiers had died. That afternoon, hundreds of Yemeni troops rolled toward Lowdar, in Yemen’s largest mobilization yet against the terrorist group.
Fighting between Al Qaeda and Yemeni forces intensified again last week, when Yemeni forces surrounded the southeastern town of Huta with tanks and artillery. Security officials pledged full-scale airstrikes, and ordered all innocent civilians out. By Friday morning, Yemen’s military said it had taken the town.
In both Lowdar and Huta, however, the main force of the Al Qaeda fighters present — two or three score, or more — somehow managed to escape the Yemeni cordons.
Critics say Yemen’s government timed the assault to a visit last week by U.S. National Security Adviser John Brennan, an advocate of tougher action on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
It was also no coincidence that as the government assault on Huta peaked Friday, representatives of the United States and roughly 30 other nations and agencies were meeting in New York to consider how to help Yemen confront its extremist threats, critics of the government say. The group, Friends of Yemen, together has pledged billions of dollars.
The siege of Huta was designed to secure “financial assistance under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” Ali Salem al-Baid, a leader of a separate separatist movement in Yemen’s south, told reporters.
The U.S. military wants to give Yemen $1.2 billion in military aid to fight Al Qaeda.
U.S. military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Americans played a role, but a limited one, in the assault on Huta.
While experts say the threat poised by Al Qaeda in Yemen is real, it is only one of many insurgencies in Yemen. And economists say the greatest danger in Yemen remains the government’s own corrupt and bungled management of Yemen’s stunted economy, which has produced a persistent 40 percent unemployment rate and a cadre of under-educated and disaffected young men.
After Al Qaeda in Iraq doomed itself by violent extremism that cost it support even among Iraq’s Sunnis, Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen are trying to be good guests among Yemen’s Sunni tribes. They have even reached out to the South’s traditionally socialist and secular separatist movement, urging all Yemen’s Muslims to unite against the Yemeni government.
“This is a major change in tactic,” Gerges said. “They are really trying to learn from past mistakes.’’
And while other Al Qaeda branches also have targeted forces of their local countries, and while Al Qaeda in Yemen still pursues Western targets as well, the concentrated campaign against Yemeni forces is new. In the past, the distinguishing characteristic of Al Qaeda, compared to earlier Islamist extremist groups, was its targeting of the “Far Enemy’’ — the United States and its allies — over the “Near Enemy’’ — the governments of the Muslim Middle East.
Gerges, the Al Qaeda expert, asks: Does the battle in Yemen show that international jihad has run its course — or that for Al Qaeda, Western-allied Arab governments have now become one with the West?
"My take is, the answer is both,’’ he said.
Ellen Knickmeyer is a former Associated Press West Africa bureau chief, a former Washington Post Cairo and Baghdad bureau chief, and a recent master's recipient from Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is now living and working in Sana'a, Yemen.