An al-Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack on Yemen’s defense ministry that killed at least 52 people, the country’s worst militant assault in 18 months.
“As part of the policy of targeting the operation rooms of pilotless planes, the mujahidin [holy fighters] have heavily struck one of these rooms in the Ministry of Defense headquarters,” Ansar al-Sharia (“Partisans of Islamic Law”) said in a Twitter message posted yesterday.
The group is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Such joint military locations which participate with the Americans in their war against this Muslim nation are a legitimate target for our operations,” another tweet said.
Thursday’s attack, in which 167 people were wounded, was carried out by a suicide bomber and gunmen wearing army uniforms. Among the dead at the Yemeni Ministry of Defense’s complex, which also houses a military hospital, were soldiers and civilians, including seven foreigners — two aid workers from Germany, two doctors from Vietnam, two nurses from the Philippines and a nurse from India, according to Yemen’s Supreme Security Commission, which issued the casualty figures. Among the Yemeni civilians killed were a doctor and a senior judge, it said.
Military officials said the attack began about 9am with the suicide bombing, which blew out windows and the doors of nearby homes and offices, destroyed an armored vehicle and reduced three cars to charred hulks.
The assault may have been timed to target a planned meeting of top commanders — a session that was unexpectedly delayed until later in the morning. The officials also said investigators suspected that sympathizers in the army may have helped the militants.
Two army vehicles went missing from the complex last month, but it was unknown if they were used in the attack, the officials said.
The Yemeni Defense Ministry got a tip last week that a major attack was imminent in Sana’a, prompting authorities to reinforce security, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The two-stage operation came as Yemeni Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed was in Washington for talks.
The US military increased its regional alert status after the attack and is “fully prepared to support our Yemeni partners,” a senior US defense official said.
The US considers the Yemeni al-Qaeda branch to be the most active in the world. In recent months, Washington has sharply escalated drone attacks against the militants in the impoverished nation. US forces also have been training and arming Yemeni special forces, and exchanging intelligence with the Yemeni central government.
The terrorist network gained a major foothold in the south, taking over several towns in the chaos that followed the 2011 uprising that ousted former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The drone strikes and a series of US-backed military offensives helped uproot several key militant strongholds, but al-Qaeda continues to fight back.
Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch is linked to the foiled plot on Christmas 2009 in which a passenger on a Detroit-bound plane allegedly tried to detonate explosives in his underwear, as well as explosives-laden parcels intercepted on cargo flights a year later.