Yemen bombings bring country closer to civil war (Toronto Star)

By Friday nightfall, the number of Yemen’s dead and injured from two mosque bombings were still being tallied as hospitals in the capital of Sanaa pleaded for blood donations.
The last official count was 137 dead and 357 wounded.
“There were a lot of children and seniors,” said Mohammed Albasha, spokesperson for Yemen’s Washington embassy. “I can’t remember anything like this. We’ve had incidents where the numbers were high but not civilians, not children. How do you bomb inside a mosque?”
A group calling themselves the Yemeni branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
The claim remains unconfirmed, but if true, would mark the Islamic State’s deadliest assault outside of their stronghold in Iraq and Syria and follow Wednesday’s attack on a Tunisian museum that killed 24.
Yemen has been in turmoil for months and bracing for a civil war since the Houthi rebel group, comprised of Zaydis, a Shiite Muslim sect from the north, took control of the capital forcing the president and prime minister to resign.
Many fear the bombings Friday, coupled with Thursday’s battle between rival political factions for control of the airport in the southern city of Aden, will spark a series of retaliatory attacks.
Perhaps the grimmest indicator of how dire the situation has become is the fact that the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) quickly distanced itself from Friday’s suicide bombings.
AQAP’s leadership has in the past denounced the viciousness of the Islamic State’s tactics and the targeting of Muslims. Which means, in crude counterterrorism terms, that AQAP, once the world’s most feared Al Qaeda group, is now perceived as the more principled terrorists.
Washington-based analyst Sama’a Al-Hamdani said while the scale of the attack was unprecedented, it fits a pattern of escalating violence in Yemen.
“Everyone is expecting that someone will light a match and then an explosion will happen, but in Yemen is it more like a snowball effect,” she said in an interview Friday.
“It’s slow but consistent, in the same direction.”
This week marked the four-year anniversary of a seminal event that changed Yemen’s history — a day known locally as the “Day of Dignity.”
On March 18, 2011, forces loyal to then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh shot at unarmed demonstrators marching in the streets during the Arab Spring protests, killing 40. The snipers fired from rooftops and from behind a wall that Saleh’s forces had constructed days earlier near the demonstrators’ main camp, Change Square.
That day marked the beginning of the end for Saleh, who was forced to resign in 2012.
But Saleh never really went away as a deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council, United States and Saudi Arabia, which paved the way for his successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, also granted him immunity from legal action.
Thursday’s battle for Aden airport was indicative of Saleh’s enduring power, as the clash pitted forces loyal to him against Hadi.
The Associated Press journalist Hamza Hendawi was at the airport on a flight bound for Cairo when the fighting broke out. “We were caught in what would become an hours-long battle, part of the bigger conflict tearing apart this chaotic, impoverished nation,” Hendawi wrote.
Hadi’s forces eventually won control and then stormed a base for pro-Saleh special forces.
By the time Hendawi arrived at the base, the looters had arrived, and he said the scene resembled a Sunday market: “Everyone was emerging from the base with something, and often, trying to sell it on the spot: window and door frames, water tanks, brand new rocket-propelled grenades in sealed bags, ammunition boxes of all sizes, ceiling fans.”
Political rivalry, the Houthi rebellion, and two competing terrorism groups have made Yemen more unstable than it has been in years and forced foreigners to flee and embassies to shut.
Albasha says he doesn’t predict a “Syria-style civil war,” but instead, months or years of what he calls “low intensity, high frequency conflict.”
Western governments often regard Yemen only through a counterterrorism lens and critics say this myopic focus can sometimes exacerbate the problem. Some scoffed at U.S. President Barack Obama’s praise last fall for what he called the “Yemen model,” suggesting the successes in combating terrorism in Yemen could be duplicated to dismantle the Islamic State in Iraq.
As author Gregory Johnsen wrote, the comparison was ill-advised since Iraq is not Yemen, AQAP is not the Islamic State and AQAP continued to grow despite numerous drone attacks, which were central to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts.
“Perhaps the best reason not to export the Yemen model to Iraq,” Johnsen wrote, “is that the Yemen model doesn’t even work in Yemen.”
Lines between foes and allies are often blurry in Yemen. Conflicts are influenced by tribal politics and the divide between the north and south, which fought a brutal civil war in 1994, just four years after uniting to become the Republic of Yemen.
Consider this: Saleh, when president, waged a brutal war against the Houthis. Hadi, at the time, was his vice-president. Today, Saleh has aligned himself with the Houthis to oppose Hadi.
The Houthis had Hadi under house arrest in Sanaa until he was able in February to flee to Aden, where he rescinded his resignation in the lead-up to Thursday’s battle.
Both Hadi and the Houthis are aligned in fighting AQAP.
Everyone, perhaps even AQAP, opposes the Islamic State.