The flight to Yemen of John Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism adviser and senior aide, on Sunday, May 20, took place after the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA agreed to appoint him mission head of the war on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, focusing on Yemen.
He inaugurated a new chapter in US-Yemen relations when he met President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the new ruler of a country battling Al Qaeda insurgents believed by Washington to pose a menace to the United States.
The visit was also meant to signify the resolution of the quarrel among American, Yemeni, Saudi and British intelligence services which flared in the second week of May over the exposure of a Saudi-British double or triple agent who also served the CIA.
This agent, whose identity was not revealed, was described as having penetrated a key Al Qaeda cell in Yemen and carried off the sample of an improved underwear bomb for blowing up an American jetliner.
The new device had no metal parts detectable by airport scanners – unlike the pants bomb discovered on the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab Christmas 2009 aboard a passenger plane landing at Detroit.
After all the parties involved in the episode, including the US, had had their say to the media on their side of the quarrel, Brennan decided it was time to put it behind them, clear the air, and get back to fighting Al Qaeda in earnest.
Not a lone suicide bomber but a whole Yemeni unit recruited by Al Qaeda
On the day Obama signed a security pact with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Brennan held talks in talks with the Yemeni president who took office in February and his military and intelligence chiefs. That night, he was on his way back to D.C.
Like his US, Saudi and Yemeni colleagues, he was not prepared for what happened while he was still airborne. Early Monday, May 21, an Al Qaeda suicide bomber murdered nearly 100 Yemeni soldiers and civilians and injured some 400 others in the heart of the capital, Sanaa.
It was not the jihadists’ biggest attack in recent years, but the biggest Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had ever pulled off against a military target in this region.
The bomber, clad in military uniform, was initially described as having blown himself up in the midst of a battalion of soldiers rehearsing for a parade the following day.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources have received different information.
The attack was not carried out by a lone suicide bomber but by a group of 10-12 Yemeni soldiers, recruited by Al Qaeda from Yemen’s Central Security Force. The group packed a vehicle with two tons of explosives and detonated it with deadly effect.
Yemen's Central Security Force is a police unit, whose second-in-command Yahya Saleh, is a nephew of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh who is now in the US.
Al Qaeda penetrations of Yemeni armed forces
An attack on the scale of the Sanaa atrocity depends on extensive logistical and financial support and plentiful weapons and explosives. If AQAP can recruit entire – albeit small – units of soldiers and officers for infiltrating Yemeni military bases and troop concentrations without difficulty as accepted members of the targeted personnel, the war in Yemen has gone beyond sporadic terrorism. AQAP has embarked on an organized, well-planned military campaign which will eventually break up Yemen’s armed forces from within.
The main target of the latest attack was Yemeni Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed and his aides, who were to be assassinated as they greeted the troops taking part in the parade rehearsal.
The assassins missed this mark, but proved they possessed precise intelligence about the movements of top Yemeni defense personnel. They also knew that the defense minister had just finished talking to the US terrorism expert John Brennan on the next steps in the war on AQAP. He too may have been targeted.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism experts recall striking similarities between this attack and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on the reviewing stand of a Cairo military parade.
His murderers came from Egyptian military intelligence special security units, who were recruited for the undercover penetration of the unit by the extremist Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which produced al Qaeda’s present leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Then, too, the killers jumped out of a vehicle opposite the viewing stand. The difference was that in the Cairo murder, the assassins gunned the Egyptian president down where he sat, whereas in Sanaa, they blew up a truck at the spot where the Yemeni defense minister was to take up position seconds before he arrived.