SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Taking advantage of heavy fog, al-Qaida militants disguised in military uniforms carried out three coordinated car bomb attacks on a security barracks and military posts in a southern Yemeni province Friday, killing at least 38 troops and wounding dozens others, military and security officials said.
The attacks were the largest since a U.S.-backed military offensive last year routed militants from significant swaths of territory they had seized during Yemen's 2011 political turmoil. The assaults also underscored the fragility of the Yemeni military and the failure of the current leadership to meet longtime demands to restructure the military.
Yemen's Supreme Security Committee, headed by the country's president, issued a statement listing 10 al-Qaida militants as top perpetrators of the attacks, and vowing to bring "criminal, coward and terrorist elements to justice."
Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished country, has been struggling for years with al-Qaida's local branch, also known as the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The group has been waging a campaign of violence against Yemen's military, including assassinations of security officers and government officials in suicide attacks or drive-by shootings.
The branch came to be considered by Washington as one of the world's most dangerous terror groups after a series of attempted attacks on American soil. After being uprooted from southern town its took over in 2011, the group has suffered some heavy blows, with a U.S. campaign of drone strikes killing a string of its prominent figures. Near-daily U.S. drone attacks in the first week of August killed 34 suspected al-Qaida militants.
Friday's attack suggested the group was trying to surge back. The simultaneous, 6 a.m. attacks in the southern province of Shabwa, a one-time al-Qaida stronghold, caught the security forces unprepared, said Maj. Nasser Mohammed, who is with a unit in the area. The attacks took place in a remote region, about 500 kilometers (312 miles) southeast of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, he said.
Militants were dressed up in military uniforms and drove cars with army license plates, another military official said. They struck just aat the transition between guard shifts, indicated they had information on the force's work schedules, the official said.
The militants targeted three military and Central Security encampments and posts, two in the town of al-Mayfaa, and the third in the al-Ain area several miles away. The area is close to the Balhaf liquefied gas export terminal on the Arabian Sea coast, a second military official said. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The military officials said 38 people were killed in the attacks. One suicide car bomber in al-Mayfaa rammed his explosives-laden vehicle into the Interior Ministry's al-Kamp Central Security camp, after militants overpowered the guards. Most of the causalities were in this camp, which serves as a base for forces in charge of guarding oil wells and the gas terminal. Clashes at the other al-Mayfaa site left at least five troops wounded, Nasser added.
Meanwhile, a car bomb was detonated prematurely outside the gates of the third site, the post in al-Ain. The blast was followed by heavy clashes during which militants seized six soldiers and a number of military vehicles. Eight militants were killed in the fighting at al-Ain, Nasser said.
Friday's attacks came just days after Yemeni authorities warned of more al-Qaida attacks and suicide bombings. Over the past two weeks, security was beefed up in the capital after tips that militants planned attacks on vital installations and foreigners.
Al-Qaida-linked militants took advantage of the political unrest in Yemen following the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to reinforce their presence in the country's mostly lawless south and seize several cities and towns there.
In a major offensive backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was able to regain control of large parts of the south last year. Militants scattered into different mountainous areas. Saleh was ousted in 2012. His successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, removed Saleh's relatives in the Republican Guard forces and other key units in the military. But he has so far failed to carry out broader reforms purging Saleh loyalists from the military and other government posts, a move experts say is needed to improve the armed forces sand security.
Sanaa-based researcher in Islamic movements, Ziad al-Salami, said Friday's attacks were a "strong message" from al-Qaida. "Al-Qaida is trying to show that it still carries weight on the ground," he said. "Yemen needs to speed up reforms of the military and break the current political stalemate."
Al-Salami said al-Qaida militants are now present in four major Yemeni provinces — Shabwa, Abyan, Hadramawt and Jouf, bordering Saudi Arabia. "This belt is a strategic one because it's the region where oil is concentrated, and where Yemen has a long coastal line," al-Salami said. "All of Yemen's wealth is there. The military must be in control."
Yemen's al-Qaida franchise has also been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots against Americans. Those included a foiled plan to down a U.S.-bound airliner using a new, sophisticated explosive to be hidden in the bomber's underwear, and a plot to send mail bombs on planes to the U.S. hidden in the toner cartridges of computer printers.