Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 April - 5 May 2010
Issue No. 996
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Keeping score

Al-Qaeda has a hit list, but so does the CIA. Whose better reflects reality, wonders Nasser Arrabyee

The failed suicide attack on the British ambassador in Sanaa on Monday, 26 April, has shown that Al-Qaeda is still posing a threat despite the open war declared by the pro- Western government five months ago.

The attack also refuted the press reports that about the 20 Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen including the top leaders had moved to the volatile neighbouring country of Somalia.

However, the unsophisticated and failed operation suggests that Al-Qaeda militants were weakened and confused by the strikes and crackdown over the last few months.

A 22-year old student acting alone failed to ram his explosive-wrapped body into the armoured car of UK Ambassador Tim Tolort, who was unharmed. The car was lightly damaged. The teen killed only himself and lightly injured three of the passers-by in the main road nearby the UK embassy in Sanaa.

The security officials identified him as Othman Ali Al-Selwi saying he had training in weapons and explosives in Mareb where Al-Qaeda militants are believed to be hiding.

Some relatives described the suicide bomber as eccentric and lonely. He was originally from Taiz province, but living in Aser neighbourhood in Sanaa.

His father Ali Noman Al-Selwi works as a building contractor in Sanaa. "He was studying in a technical institute but he sometimes used to go absent from home for two months," said the father sadly.

The father confirmed that his son had been jailed for two years by Yemeni intelligence and that he and the security officials tried repeatedly to convince him to get married but he refused.

The security forces arrested dozens of Al-Qaeda suspects immediately after the bombing. Some observers believe that the Monday failed suicide attack was a retaliation for the latest strikes and crackdown on Al-Qaeda including the last operation of 18 April when two Al-Qaeda operatives were killed in a raid in the coastal province of Hodeida in the west.

"It is a retaliatory act, but it was very weak, and this means that Al-Qaeda is getting weaker and weaker as the war on them continues," said Abdel-Ghani Al-Eryani, a specialist on Yemeni and American relations.

Al-Eryani excluded the possibility that Al-Qaeda wanted to target the British ambassador because of the British efforts to mobilise international support to help the Yemen government combat terrorism, especially the London conference on Yemen which was called by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown late last January. "They look for any target they can find, so this attack has nothing to do with the London conference," Al-Eryani added.

But, Ginny Hill, Chatham House specialist on Yemen disagreed, saying UK-led international efforts to help Yemen get rid of Al-Qaeda were likely behind the suicide attack against the British ambassador. "British military trainers have been supporting the coast guard and the counter- terrorism unit for several years. Since 2006, the British have also taken a strong lead on development and anti-corruption measures," said Hill who is currently on a visit to Yemen.

Nabil Al-Bukairi, a Yemeni researcher on terrorism and radical groups, disagrees with both Hill and Al-Eryani on why the British ambassador in particular was targeted and whether Al-Qaeda has become weaker.

"Al-Qaeda is Al-Qaeda. They did not fail in this attack. They succeeded in what they want: they wanted to spread terror, terrify and deplete the Western security systems by keeping them in a state of alert all the time. This is one of Al-Qaeda's top goals, just to keep the world in a state of chaos and terror, the so-called management savagery," said Al Bukairi. "The US and UK are always the first target of Al-Qaeda, and the other Westerners are secondary."

The US increased its assistance to Yemen to $150 million in 2010 from about $70 million in 2009.

The Monday suicide attack also came less than one month after the US put the Yemeni- American cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki on the CIA "kill or capture" list.

Al-Awlaki, hiding in the mountainous areas of Shabwah where his clan boasts of protecting the "hero sheikh", is accused of being behind terrorist acts such as the Fort Hood shooting and the failed underwear bomber. Al-Awlaki, who was born raised and studied in the US, recently called for jihad against the US.

In a video clip issued on 16 April in Al-Qaeda's monthly magazine Sada Al-Malahem, he denied the accusations and accused the Yemeni government of betrayal and treason.

"Of course, I categorically rejected this. What am I accused of? Of calling for the truth? Of calling for jihad for the sake of Allah? Of calling to defend the causes of the Islamic nation? It is the Yemeni government that stands accused of betrayal and treason," he said.

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