Al-Qaeda suspects carried out twin suicide bombings and took hostages on Sunday, officials said, as they struck at the heart of the Yemeni government after suffering a string of setbacks. The apparently coordinated attacks spell an abrupt end to a period of relative calm that has reigned in Aden, where the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi has been based since it was driven out of the capital Sanaa by a rival rebel camp in 2014.
Yemen’s complex war, which pits the Saudi-backed Hadi government against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his Iran-backed Huthi rebel allies, has allowed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to flourish in the south of the country. Southern Yemen is also the target of the longest-running drone war by the United States, which classifies AQAP as the radical Islamist network’s most dangerous branch.
On Sunday, eight members of the security forces were killed in the attacks on the security headquarters and criminal investigations unit in the central district of Khor Maksar in Aden. A high-ranking official with the state security forces said an explosives-rigged car driven by an Al-Qaeda operative blew up outside the security headquarters, killing the six officers along with the driver.
A second attacker was killed in a shootout between police and gunmen that followed, as militants stormed the building and set alight files and archives, the official said. Moments later, a suicide bomber made his way into the Aden criminal investigations unit, next door to the security headquarters, and detonated an explosive belt as more gunmen stormed the building, a source in the unit said.
Two policewomen were killed in execution-style slayings by suspected Al-Qaeda attackers, who also took an unknown number of police detectives hostage in the criminal investigations unit. A second attacker was killed at the scene. The source said the gunmen managed to spring some 50 detainees free from their holding cells at the criminal investigations unit, some of whom he said took up arms alongside the suspected Al-Qaeda militants.
Yemeni forces allied with a Saudi-led coalition have closed in on AQAP strongholds in recent weeks, driving them out of pockets of the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa. Special forces trained by the United Arab Emirates and backed by the United States on Monday drove AQAP out of Mahfad, a town through which a key highway linking Aden to the oil-rich Shabwa province runs. The troops did not face resistance from Al-Qaeda, security sources said.
In August, the UAE-backed forces said they had launched a major operation against jihadists in Shabwa. A senior military official said at the time that the insurgents had staged a “tactical retreat” without much resistance. The UAE has played a key role in a Saudi-led military campaign to prop up Hadi’s government against both AQAP and the Huthis, who forced him into exile back in 2014.
More than 8,600 people have been killed in Yemen since Saudi Arabia and its allies joined the war in 2015 to support government forces, according to the World Health Organization. Another 2,100 have died of cholera this year. Long the poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen now stands steps away from an official declaration of famine, as war, displacement, and port and airport blockades leave Yemenis struggling to secure food.
All parties in the Yemen war have drawn harsh criticism for their failure to protect civilians, but the Saudi-led coalition allied with the government has been singled out by the United Nations for civilian casualties. In September, the UN Human Rights Council announced an agreement to send war crimes investigators to Yemen.