Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:28 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 20:28 | SYDNEY

Yemen: Suicide bombings test fragile state

19 March 2009 11:11

Sarah Phillips is an Associate Lecturer at the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney. 

There have been two suicide attacks against foreigners in Yemen this week, the first against a group of South Korean tourists in which five people were killed, and the second against the team that came from South Korea to investigate the attack. The latter killed only the bomber, who detonated as the investigative team’s convoy drove to Sana’a Airport at the end of their visit.

Responsibility has not yet been claimed but the attacks bear the hallmarks of previous claimed attacks – namely, high profile targets and limited operational effectiveness. The attacks show flexibility in target selection and the ability to recruit suicidal operatives. Despite their continued inability to inflict high numbers of casualties or infrastructure damage, jihadis in Yemen are showing that there are still factions that will not succumb to the Government’s efforts to co-opt or negotiate with them.

For those not watching Yemen closely, some context is necessary. In January, al Qaeda affiliates announced a merger between operatives in Yemen and Saudi Arabia under the new banner 'al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula'. In February, both Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wahishi (the leader of the newly merged entity) made statements which underscored that – as in Afghanistan and Pakistan – relationships between al Qaeda groups and local tribes will be critical to jihadis’ ability to entrench themselves in the country.

Al-Wahishi in particular called on Yemen’s tribes to resist pressure to grant the state control of their territories. Militants are clearly aware of the Government’s diminishing capacity to control the periphery and are announcing themselves as competitors to the state, and as new potential patrons. These attacks were demonstrations of strength and of the perpetrators’ ability to create crises, which are important assets for a group seeking to establish itself as worthy of loyalty in an environment governed by informal networks.

The power of the Yemeni Government to exercise control has dropped considerably in recent months. The state has withdrawn from large parts of the Southern governorate of Abyan, where armed jihadis have stormed government offices, cut roads and engaged in vigilante-style executions of people they accuse of moral deviance.

The on-again, off-again insurgency in the northern governorate of Sa’ada looks to be reigniting and the state’s rapidly falling oil revenues mean that the Government may soon be confronted with difficulties in paying civil and military salaries. The Yemeni regime’s ability to keep its head above water is being tested and a number of groups are positioning themselves in the event that it becomes unable to continue to tread water.