MARCH 20, 2015
Suicide Attacks at Mosques in Yemen Kill More Than 130
By MOHAMMED ALI KALFOOD, KAREEM FAHIM and ERIC SCHMITT
SANA, Yemen -- An affiliate of the Islamic State that had not previously carried out any major attacks claimed responsibility for coordinated suicide strikes on Zaydi Shiite mosques here that killed more than 130 people during Friday Prayer, bringing to Yemen the kind of deadly sectarian fighting that has ripped apart Syria and Iraq.
The bombings, apparently carried out by Sunni extremists against Shiite places of worship, threatened to propel the conflict toward the kind of unrestrained sectarian bloodletting that Yemen had so far avoided.
It also showed how drastically the situation had deteriorated in Yemen after Houthi rebels seized power,  galvanizing Sunni militants who opposed them at a time when Washington's ability to conduct counterterrorism operations was greatly reduced.
Western counterterrorism officials fear that a security vacuum resembling Somalia's would draw even more jihadists to ungoverned territory in Yemen, where they would have the space and time to plot attacks against the West.
Even Yemen's powerful affiliate of Al Qaeda had been reluctant to carry out large-scale attacks against Muslim civilians, despite its hatred of the Houthis, whose leaders are members of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam and are considered heretics by the Sunni militants.
Instead, it was a rival jihadist group affiliated with the Islamic State and calling itself Sana Province that raised the specter of a destabilizing new brand of violence in Yemen's civil conflict. "This operation is but the tip of an iceberg," the group said in an audio statement. "The polytheist Houthis have to know that the Islamic State soldiers will be not satisfied, or rest, until we eradicate them."
The attacks, the deadliest against civilians in the country in recent memory, offered a grisly illustration of how Yemen's fracturing is undermining counterterrorism programs that American officials consider pivotal at a time of increasing attacks around the world. Some of those attacks appear to be a result of an escalating rivalry between Al Qaeda and its affiliates and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, a former Qaeda franchise in Iraq.
"It's hard to imagine how things could be on a worse path in Yemen," said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He said the panel had received recent classified briefings on Yemen that were "pretty grim."
In a sign of the deteriorating security, the last 125 American Special Operations advisers were withdrawing from Yemen on Friday as Qaeda fighters seized Huta, a town about 20 miles from the base in the south where the Americans were operating, said a United States official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operations.
Al Qaeda has carried out frequent attacks in the province, clashing with military units, assassinating security officials and occasionally firing heavy weapons at the military base, in Al Anad. The Pentagon declined to comment on the withdrawal, which was reported in the Yemeni news media on Friday.
Coming a day after violence spread to Aden in the south in rare factional clashes over control of the international airport and a security base, Friday's attacks brought into sharp relief the mounting chaos that is spreading through the impoverished country. Yemen, with no recognized government, faces a possible breakup between rival factions in the north and south, a spreading armed conflict that is displacing thousands of Yemenis and a financial collapse.
The threat of civil war also poses multiple challenges to the Obama administration, which only a few months ago held out Yemen's negotiated transition from autocracy to an elected president as a model for post-revolutionary Arab states.
With the beleaguered government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi decamped to Aden, the Pentagon has effectively lost its major partner in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which American intelligence officials say still poses the most potent terrorist threat to the United States.
Many Yemenis are harshly critical of American counterterrorism programs, complaining of a relationship between the two countries based on security issues, and opposing American drone strikes against Qaeda militants that have killed civilians.
In Yemen, fighters clash daily along several contested fronts. Sunni extremists, including the Islamic State fighters and militants linked to the Qaeda affiliate, have carried out a number of deadly attacks against supporters of the Houthi rebel movement, which controls Sana and since September has been Yemen's most dominant force.
There are growing fears that Yemen is becoming a stage for the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia, which opposes the Houthis, has supported Sunni militants in Yemen, diplomats say, while the Houthis have received financial and military support from Iran.
The claim of responsibility for Friday's attack by the Islamic State affiliate, just a day after the group claimed responsibility for the attack in Tunis this week that killed more than 20 people, appeared to illustrate the organization's expanding ideological reach, although its links to both local groups was not yet fully understood.
In Washington, officials suggested that local militants were trying to benefit from the Islamic State's notoriety to elevate their stature within jihadist ranks.
"There's no doubt that there has been a lot of political instability in Yemen that has only worsened and that has created some chaos and does make it easier for these kinds of extremist groups to capitalize on that chaos and carry out acts of violence and to spread their hateful ideology," said the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest.
The bombings on Friday came after a week of unusually widespread bloodshed in Yemen. In the space of a few days, a prominent opposition journalist was assassinated  outside his home in Sana, rare militia fighting erupted in Aden and, on Friday, Qaeda militants seized government buildings in a provincial capital in the south.
"Yemenis knew violence, but not this brutal," said Farea al-Muslimi, a Sana-based political analyst and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon, speaking about the assassinations, clashes and bombings over the past few days. "There are no norms," he said. "It's a very scary moment.
Yemen has been leaderless since January, when the Houthis tightened their grip on the capital and placed the president, Mr. Hadi,  along with his government, under house arrest.
Mr. Hadi later fled to Aden and declared that he was still the country's leader, splitting the country between hostile centers of power. United Nations diplomats have been unable to broker a compromise that would stitch the country back together. And regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, seem to have abandoned the effort, throwing their support behind either Mr. Hadi or the Houthis and inflaming the conflict.
Analysts said the descent into anarchy had laid bare the failure of the country's political factions, as well Yemen's prominent backers, including the United States, to arrest the crisis. A process that was supposed to aid Yemen's transition from decades of authoritarianism to democracy, led by the United Nations, "had not prevented civil war, but rather delayed it," Mr. Muslimi said.
Aden became further embroiled in that conflict on Thursday, with fighting that pitted tribesmen and military units loyal to Mr. Hadi against a security unit seen as close to Yemen's former autocratic leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from power in 2012 but retained his influence, most recently by allying himself with the Houthis.
On Friday, hospitals in Sana made urgent appeals for blood to treat the hundreds of people wounded in the blasts at the Badr and Hashoush Mosques. Another suicide bomber was detected before he could reach a mosque in the northern province of Saada, a Houthi stronghold.
The bombers at the Badr Mosque maximized casualties by detonating their explosives inside but also among the overflow of worshipers outside. A dozen members of one family were killed, witnesses said.
Two suicide bombers also attacked the Hashoush Mosque, with one of the attackers hiding his explosives in a fake cast on his leg. He detonated the explosive after he was stopped at a checkpoint about 65 feet from the mosque entrance, killing a few people while the other bomber rushed inside as prayers ended, killing dozens more.
"We have seen bombings before in Sana," said Hassan Ali, a resident of the neighborhood. "But this is the most horrible crime."
Mohammed Ali Kalfood reported from Sana, Kareem Fahim from Cairo, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Saeed Al-Batati contributed reporting from Al Mukalla, Yemen.