A car carrying Britain's deputy ambassador to Yemen, Fionna Gibb, was heading to the embassy in Sana'a, early Wednesday, when two men dressed as street cleaners suddenly whipped out a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher from under a garbage bag. Witnesses at the scene told TIME the projectile missed the car but exploded on the sidewalk, spraying a Yemeni mother and child with shrapnel. One British staffer suffered minor injuries, according to the embassy. The incident highlights the growing peril to Western officials based in Yemen as al-Qaeda steps up operations, but the diversity of backgrounds among the jihadist group's militants in the country has made for a less predictable selection of targets.
The past two years have seen two strikes on the U.S. embassy and a botched suicide bombing on the British ambassador's convoy. But these attacks on international targets are punctuated by dozens of local strikes against Yemeni security and government officials, particularly over the past summer as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has escalated its local campaign. The Yemeni military has lost as many as 100 soldiers to jihadist attacks, and a number of senior government officials are said to be too scared to leave their homes. That's because assassinations and ambushes have become so commonplace in the southern province of Abyan considered an al Qaeda stronghold that local authorities have banned motorcycles from the roads. The ubiquitous two-wheelers are the favored vehicle for hit-and-run militants armed with AK-47s and grenades. Most assassinations of intelligence and security officials over the past nine months, including at least 30 security personnel killed in the past three months, have involved motorcycle hits, according to the Interior Ministry.
Last month, AQAP distributed flyers threatening to kill 55 named top security officers in the region. The hit list, which was posted on the doors of homes in Abyan by masked men, named 31 state security officers, 15 members of the judiciary police and nine members of military intelligence. According to published reports, terrified officials have since been told to avoid gathering in public places.
The targeting of the Yemeni state represents a shift for the local chapter of al-Qaeda, which had traditionally avoided attacking fellow Muslims. "There is no doubt there are some divisions and disputes about priorities among al Qaeda's internal leaders," says Saeed al Jemhi, author of Al Qaeda in Yemen. "AQAP lacks opportunities to attack international targets now that it's hard for militants to leave Yemen, so they've turned to local targets."
But the shift to targeting local authorities is not simply about travel restrictions; it's also a reflection of the strong representation of non-Yemenis in the ranks of AQAP, which formed in January 2009 as a merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda. An effective 2003-2006 campaign by Saudi counterterrorism forces had forced many Saudi militants to flee to neighboring Yemen, where the strength of local tribal ties could create safety from a relatively weak central government. Since then, experts believe three factions have emerged within AQAP: the Yemeni branch, the Saudi branch and foreign fighters from abroad, including Europe and the U.S. as well as Pakistan and Somalia. As a result, says Jemhi, many attacks are carried out without authorization by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the group's leader. "AQAP is made of small cells and some are now planning their own attacks on Yemeni security for their own reasons, like local disputes with the judiciary," said Jemhi. "There are some radicals who will not take orders. Al Wuhayshi cannot control all cells and all people."
Observers say that throughout the 1990s, al-Qaeda militants sought refuge in Yemen, at a time when the Yemeni government was prepared to tolerate their presence under a tacit agreement that they would abstain from attacking the Yemeni state. Many jihadists returning from fighting in Afghanistan had strong tribal and political ties and Sana'a feared any direct confrontation.
Aish Ali Awas, an al-Qaeda expert at the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies, says this changed after 2001 when foreign militants filtered into the country, bringing with them different ideologies and tactics. "Most of the members of AQAP are now Saudi and Egyptian," he notes. "Their thinking is to hit local government first." Awas says the frontline for al-Qaeda in Yemen has now been brought to Yemen's cities. "Al Qaeda in Yemen has always aimed to strike foreign targets and they tried to avoid attacking any Muslims," he said. But now, with the Pentagon proposing a $1 billion military aid package for Sana'a to put pressure on jihadists, al-Qaeda militants find themselves fighting on home turf. August and September saw Yemeni security forces laying siege to two towns in southern Yemen, with heavy clashes reported.
While assassinating Yemeni officials will never get the international attention generated by Wednesday's attack on a foreign diplomat, experts say the culture of instability in Yemen will allow AQAP to plan and execute larger attacks on the West. Yemen, the Arab world's poorest state, is fertile ground, with the government also battling an uprising in the north by Shia Muslim Houthi rebels and an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south. And, with militants sheltering with tribes, government assaults have created resentment among local populations, who are bound under tribal law to retaliate if their guests are attacked.
"Part of [AQAP's] tactics are assassinating local officials, but that is more to create an atmosphere of fear and a disincentive for the local and security officials to stand up to AQAP," says Jihad media expert Aaron Y. Zelin. "It would be inaccurate to argue that AQAP cannot carry out a large-scale attack."