Yemen’s defense minister narrowly escaped assassination on Tuesday when a powerful car bomb ripped through his motorcade as it traveled in the nation’s capital, killing at least 13 people in an attack that bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.
The bombing came a day after Yemeni authorities announced the killing of the No. 2 leader of the militant group’s Yemeni branch — which is al-Qaeda’s most active — in an apparent US airstrike.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the mid-morning blast in Sana’a, but al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch is believed to be behind at least five other failed assassination attempts against the minister, Major General Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, who has recently won national acclaim as a seasoned and popular commander in the fight against al-Qaeda militants.
Hours after the attack, Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi fired the chiefs of national security and military intelligence, as well as the stepbrother of ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ali Saleh al-Ahmar. Al-Ahmar was the director of the office of the supreme commander of the armed forces, a position from which he wielded vast power.
The bombing appeared to be in the vein of a string of attacks blamed on al-Qaeda since the terror network suffered a series of setbacks at the hands of US-backed government troops. The offensive has dislodged the group from a large swath of southern Yemen it had occupied for more than a year.
The battlefield defeats came as many residents in the south turned against the militants, mostly out of anger over their brutality or because of the disruptions caused by fighting with government forces.
Al-Qaeda responded to the defeats by staging brutal attacks that cost them even more local support. In recent months, it has attacked mourners at funerals, targeted troops praying in mosques and sent a suicide bomber to a military parade rehearsal.
Tuesday’s bombing hit the last vehicle in Ahmed’s three-car convoy as it was traveling through the neighborhood of al-Izaa, according to Yemeni security officials. The blast left the car a charred hulk of twisted metal, with burnt bodies strapped inside, and blew out the windows of storefronts and scorched a nearby building. Pools of blood stained the pavement as hundreds of soldiers and onlookers converged on the site.
Eight of the minister’s security guards and five civilian bystanders were killed, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
“This is awful,” said Mohamed El-Mehdi, who works in the area. “The people and children are unable to grasp what happened.”
Some of the five civilians killed were the owners of nearby shops, he added.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch is seen by Washington as the world’s most active, planning and carrying out attacks against targets in both Yemen and the US, including the failed attempt by an al-Qaeda operative to detonate an underwear bomb aboard a flight bound for Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.
Earlier this year, nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers were killed and at least 200 wounded when an al-Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up at the parade rehearsal in May. Al-Qaeda said at the time it was targeting Ahmed, who was not hurt in the attack.
Earlier this month, a suicide attacker driving an explosives-laden car blew himself up in the southern city of Aden next to the minister’s passing convoy. Ahmed escaped that attack unscathed as well. There was no claim of responsibility, but Yemeni military forces were battling al-Qaeda militants there at the time.