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May 21, 2012 saw one of the most brutal suicide bombings ever in Yemen. At least 90 soldiers were killed and 222 injured during a parade rehearsal. The attack happened around 10 AM in the al-Sabeen square in Sanaa when the troops were listening to the national anthem, just minutes before the defense minister was due to give a speech. The suicide bomber is believed to be either a soldier or a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform.
The parade rehearsal was to commemorate Yemen’s National Day, the day in 1990 when the north and south of Yemen were united.
Most of the soldiers killed were from the Central Security Organization, a paramilitary force led by Yahya Saleh, nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yahya Saleh was dismissed only hours after the attack. One of the security officers was fired by presidential decree as well.
The al-Qaeda group in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), claimed responsibility for the attack. The AQAP declared that the attack was revenge for the US war on followers from southern Yemen. In the same announcement AQAP warned that there would be more attacks stating, “We will take revenge, God willing, and the flames of war will reach you everywhere, and what happened is but the start of a jihad project in defense of honor and sanctities.”
The AQAP is considered a key threat to US security by the US government. This is the same group that tried to bomb an airplane flying over Detroit and plotted to send mail bombs to Chicago via cargo planes in 2010. Most recently, the AQAP is also responsible for the failed attempt to get a suicide bomber onto a US bound plane in April 2012. The US has sent twenty-one missile attacks to AQAP territory since January 2012.
No top officials were harmed during the bombing, although they were present; instead, most of the victims were Yemeni soldiers. In the past soldiers have been off-limits for the AQAP because they believed that it would make them unpopular with the Yemeni people. Previously the AQAP has gone so far as to release 75 soldiers that they captured in southern Yemen.
This attack seems to demonstrate that the AQAP has expanded influence since most of its operations have taken place only in Southern Yemen. It is possible that the group has grown because of pressures on the al-Qaeda group in the Federall Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan now that Pakistan is cooperating more with the US.
The bombing came 10 days after the Yemeni military started airstrikes and ground assaults near the outskirts of Jaar, the most important militant-controlled town in Yemen. Although the US military is advising the Yemeni government it is not getting involved militarily. Obama stated, “I think one of the things that we’ve learned from the Afghanistan experience is for us to stay focused on the counter-terrorism issue, to work with the government, to not overextend ourselves.”