DUBAI (Reuters) - From attacks on Western ships to last week’s U.S. embassy bombing, Yemen is no stranger to al Qaeda, but security analysts say its real value to the network may be as a place to regroup and prepare for strikes elsewhere.
Seventeen people were killed in Wednesday’s twin suicide car bombing at the U.S. embassy compound -- the largest attack in Yemen since the 2002 bombing of the French supertanker Limburg.
Security analysts say the sophistication of the attack, in which the assailants were disguised in military uniforms and cars, suggests al Qaeda is gathering strength in a country that lacks the resources to crush militants, with a view to mounting attacks elsewhere in the world’s biggest oil exporting region.
“”No one should just sit back and watch what is happening in Yemen...I think we will witness more ‘quality’ operations and see the possibility that this will cross into other Gulf states,” said Dubai-based analyst Mustafa Alani.
“We will see more links between the Yemen group and those in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Qaeda has suffered a lot in Iraq but if you push them down in one state they will appear elsewhere.”
Situated on strategic shipping lanes and next to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, Yemen faces a raft of problems -- a revolt in the north, discontent in the south and an influx of Somali refugees -- that raise red flags beyond its own borders.
Yemen’s government joined the U.S.-led war against terrorism following the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities in 2001. It has since jailed or killed dozens of suspected Islamist militants but, as a mountainous tribal country where government control is limited, it remains attractive to outlaws.
Abject poverty and poor education, coupled with a young and growing population, give al Qaeda a ready source of recruits.
Some radical clerics are close to or tolerated by the Yemeni government in what remains a deeply conservative Muslim country.
Analysts say authorities had been willing to turn a blind eye to militants as long as they lay dormant, but have cracked down on al Qaeda this year after it stepped up attacks in Yemen.
On Thursday, Yemeni authorities said they had arrested 30 al Qaeda suspects for questioning over the U.S. embassy attack. More have been held since.
“The attack now is an answer to the counter-terrorism strategy of the government because in recent months the government has arrested or killed many of these activists,” said Nicole Stracke, an analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai.
The more unstable Yemen becomes, the more it will attract the very militants the United States wants it to keep at bay.
While Yemen has witnessed major al Qaeda attacks including the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, it was not until early this year that an offshoot calling itself al Qaeda in the South of the Arabian Peninsula went public. It began issuing statements and an e-magazine, “The Echoes of Epics”.
A surge in smaller operations, including a mortar attack on the U.S. embassy that wounded 13 at a nearby school, have been claimed by the Yemen Soldiers Brigades faction. Wednesday’s attack was claimed by Islamic Jihad, another al Qaeda affiliate.
“It is not unusual for a number of names to be used because al Qaeda wants to show that there are a number of groups working against the government and because it wants to mislead the security forces,” Alani said.
The latest attack, in which gunmen planned to use their disguises to get inside the compound, was reminiscent of attacks in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Analysts say al Qaeda in Yemen has increasingly turned to wealthy Saudi sympathisers for money and support as Saudi authorities have managed to halt attacks there.
In January, al Qaeda vowed in “The Echoes of Epics” to free jailed militants and carried an interview with a Saudi fugitive who restated the group’s long-standing goal of blocking oil supplies and pushing Westerners out of the Arabian Peninsula.
Attacks in Yemen have increased since 23 militants tunnelled out of a Yemeni jail two years ago.
“Many of the operatives responsible for recent attacks escaped in 2006. Since then they have been regrouping. In the last few months we have seen an increase in confrontations between the Yemeni government and al Qaeda,” said Erich Maquardt, editor in chief of Sentinel, issued by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. military academy in West Point.
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