Sana’a, Yemen – After meeting my driver and interpreter this morning, we drove directly to the site of the May 21 suicide bombing in Sana’a. After navigating through the twisting cobblestone passages of the Old City, we drove down dusty boulevards towards the Al-Saleh Mosque–a glorious $80 million structure named for Yemen’s recently-deposed president. My interpreter is of two minds about the monument, reveling in its beauty but wondering how the previous regime could justify the expense in a country where half the population lives on less than two dollars a day.
The suicide bombing took place on a six four lane motorway on the Western side of Sana’a a few kilometers from the Old City. On one side of the motorway is a large reviewing stand, where Yemeni Defense Ministers Mohammed Naser Ahmed sat amidst senior officers and colleagues to watch soldiers rehearse for a Unity Day parade. On the other side is a large park separated from the road by a long painted iron gate. As we arrive, the gate is plastered with portraits of the murdered soldiers–now some 136 souls according to my Yemeni sources, including those who recently died from their wounds.
Our arrival causes a commotion. Despite my best efforts to blend in, a Westerner with a Nikon camera is a rarity in Sana’a today, and I am immediately surrounded by soldiers eager to explain what happened. A Colonel from the Yemeni Army’s Moral Guidance Department strides up and greets me in fluent Russian. Its a bold assumption on his part, but after a few second we quickly discover that Russian is the only language the two of us have in common. He insists that I sign the condolence book, and within seconds someone has pressed a microphone into my hand and is videotaping me for a government propaganda film. I mutter something about honoring the sacrifice of Yemen’s martyrs and search for an exit, tripping backwards over a parked motorcycle as I do. Just six hours into my latest James Bond fantasy adventure, I’ve pulled a full-on Jonny English in front of the Yemeni Armed Forces. The videographer mercifully shuts off his camera.
Collecting myself (and the tattered remnants of my pride), I listen as the Colonel explains how the bombing was carried out. According to Yemeni investigators, the suicide bomber approached from the unguarded park. Clad in a Yemeni Army uniform, he slipped into the marching column before detonating his explosives, spraying the area with shrapnel. I ask whether the government has determined the bomber’s identity. The Colonel responds, saying that there wasn’t enough forensic reside after the bombing to make a determination. I then ask how someone could manage to carry an explosive large enough to kill so many people in such an open space. The Colonel demurs and changes the subject, informing me that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was the responsible for the bombing, emphasizing that the syndicate now has active cells operating in Sana’a.
I’m not sure what to make of his response. Although the attack bears the basic hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation–high explosives, suicide tactics, and a vulnerable target guaranteed to attract publicity–some Yemenis quietly point to General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmer, commander of Yemen’s 1st Armored Division. Others imagine a plot by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh aimed at undermining his successor and disrupting the power-sharing agreement brokered by the Gulf Coordination Council late last year. So while the evidence appears to implicate AQAP, the event itself continued to be read through the prism of Yemen’s fractious post-Arab Spring politics. Snapping photos of the makeshift memorial, I wonder whether the threat posed by al-Qaeda’s most active franchise is enough to transcend the resentment and recrimination that pervades Yemeni politics.