In May 2012 a young al-Qaeda recruit dressed in military attire snuck into an army parade near the presidential palace in Yemen’s capital and blew himself up. The explosion was small, but the suicide bomber's proximity to those around him meant it was devastating. The blast killed 96 soldiers and injured over two hundred others.
Yemenis were appalled, but not altogether surprised, by the carnage. At the time Yemen’s US-trained counter-terrorism forces were waging an offensive against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who had seized several towns in the south-east.
Hours after the bombing, AQAP's media arm, al-Malahim, put out a statement: ‘you attacked us in our heartland so we struck you in yours,’ it read. Yemen’s defense minister had been the target of the bombing, said the statement which warned of more attacks if the government offensive did not stop.
This Thursday a bomb exploded at an anti-government rally in the heart of Sana’a. It was almost as deadly and, almost as predictable as the 2012 attack.
47 Yemenis, all civilians, including a woman and a twelve-year-old boy, were killed by a suicide bomber who walked up to the edge of a protest organised by Houthi rebels in a central square and detonated explosives strapped to his chest. The blast, caught on CCTV, shows the crowd below scattering as the bomb goes off, sending glass, concrete and bodies flying across the tarmac.
On Friday AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack. "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula carried out its promise, and today we have seen body parts of the Shiite rebels strewn in Tahrir Square," the militants said in a brief online statement, warning Yemenis to keep away from Houthi protests.
Religion as a battle cry
When the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group based in Yemen’s north, marched into Yemen’s capital two weeks ago seizing government buildings and demanding reforms and more autonomy for their community, they were met with little resistance.
The police and the army stood and watched as armed men entered the city in their thousands. The government bowed to the Houthi’s demands and promised to lower fuel prices and appoint a new prime minister.
After years on the margins of Yemen's politics the Houthis have emerged as a new force in Yemeni politics. Their 32-year-old leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, is, for all intents and purposes, the country’s new kingmaker.
The Houthi's advance threatens the entrenched order in Yemen: the US-backed, but increasingly fragile and impotent government, meant to be steering the country toward democracy, the Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose tribal leaders the Houthis have chased out of town, and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s oil-rich neighbour who fought a six year war with the rebel group and see them as allied with Iran.
AQAP, who have used their foothold in Yemen to plan and launch attacks against the US, are also concerned by the Houthis, a powerful militant movement who, like AQAP, use religion as a battle cry, and who are threatening to encroach upon AQAP strongholds in Marib and al-Baydha province.
Analysts say that the Houthi’s rapid rise to power, may serve to strengthen al-Qaeda in Yemen by providing them with a new sectarian narrative with which to drive recruitment.
“AQAP has been weakened in the last year because of continuous drone strikes but they will use this as an opportunity to recruit,” said a Sana’a University professor who did not wish to be named. “They will say ‘look the Shiites took over our country and Iran is running Sana’a now’. It will increase the chances of young Sunnis joining AQAP.”
Though the Houthis frame their fight in national terms; articulating popular grievances such as rising fuel prices, an end to corruption, and support for the poor, in a vocabulary redolent of the early days of the Arab spring, there is widespread fear that with AQAP entering the fight, the tone will become increasingly sectarian.
Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, a Yemeni analyst, said that the Houthis saw fighting AQAP not as a threat but as an opportunity.
“The longer the Houthis remain in the capital the more they erode the legitimacy of the state; revealing it as unable to carry out the basic duties of security and counter-terrorism” said al-Iryani.
“If the Houthis take on al-Qaeda it will make the government look even more incompetent in the eyes of the people and it will put Yemen on a path toward sectarian war."
A diplomat in Sana'a who wanted to remain annoymous told MEE that the Houthis were unlikely to topple the government or to back down.
"The government is already in their hands, they don’t want to topple it because they will become rulers and have to deal with the negative consequences of governing. They are calculating to have best of both worlds; be in government but not of it."