Why Britain?

October 10, 2010

At around 8 a.m. on Wednesday, two men dressed as street cleaners, fired a rocket propelled grenade hidden in a rubbish bag at a convoy carrying the British deputy ambassador in Yemen. After firing at the convoy, both assailants fled the scene, leaving their weapons behind. The armoured vehicle was able to withstand most of the grenade’s impact (one British official inside the car was injured) but careered off the road hitting a mother and her child who are both in hospital receiving treatment.

Without wishing to give too much credit to two men stood by the side of the road with an RPG in a rubbish bag it seems unlikely that they were firing at random. One man who was an eyewitness to the attack told me that an Egyptian Embassy convoy drove past before the British one and was not fired upon. When asked how the militants would be able to tell the difference, he muttered something about number plates. Either way it is now the second time in six months that British Embassy staff  have been targeted in Sana’a. (In April a suicide bomber threw himself at Tim Torlot, the British ambassador, as his convoy neared the British Embassy, injuring three passers-by and damaging a police car).

According to Asharq Al-Awsat, “The British embassy in Yemen has suffered the most number of terrorist attacks of all the foreign embassies in Yemen.” (The Saudi embassy is the second most-targeted, the US embassy comes third).

Two attacks on British diplomats travelling in Sana’a in the last six months raises the question: why Britain?

One answer could be location. The previous two attacks occurred within a close proximity of each other in the neighbourhood of Nuqum, a sprawling slum on the east side of Yemen’s capital. Much of the area is made up of shanty towns that have mushroomed in the shadow of the Nuqum Mountain.

Nuqum contains both the US and British embassies and is said to have become a haven to militants because of the sparse security presence there. One of the few main roads that cut through the area is the main route from the embassies to downtown Sana’a – a route that British embassy staff must take every day to get from their residency to the embassy. (The American ambassador who lives in the embassy compound does not face the same predicament as his British counterpart). 

Another explanation could be linked to Britain’s highly active and visible role in Yemen, especially in the past few years. In a recent article for the BBC Ginny Hill writes that, “British military trainers have been working closely with the Yemeni government for several years, supporting both the coastguard and the counter-terrorism unit.”

In addition, Britain has been at the forefront of efforts to garner international support for Yemen. It has been a key player in the Friends of Yemen, a group established this January in London to help coordinate aid and promote security in Yemen.   

A third possible explanation is that these attacks are, in some form or another, inside jobs. A number of Yemenis I spoke to at the scene of the attack were adamant that the Yemeni or the British government (or both) were in some way in on the act. As dubious and implausible as this theory sounds, it does touch upon something: increased attacks on Western targets in Yemen, whether carried out by Al-Qaeda or anyone else, do not diminish international support for the Yemeni government; on the contrary they appear to strengthen it. William Hague’s response to the attack on Wednesday was telling:

 “This shameful attack on British diplomats will only redouble Britain’s determination to work with the Government of Yemen to help address the challenges that country faces.”

It is also worth noting that despite the recent increase in the number of attacks on foreign diplomats in Yemen, Western targets still constitute a minority when compared to the number of Al-Qaeda strikes that are carried out on locals. Oliver Holmes highlights this in a recent article for TIME magazine:

   “…these attacks on international targets are punctuated by dozens of local strikes against Yemeni security and government officials, particularly over the past summer as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has escalated its local campaign. The Yemeni military has lost as many as 100 soldiers to jihadist attacks, and a number of senior government officials are said to be too scared to leave their homes.”

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in places of conflict, the people who suffer in these type of attacks are not government leaders or high ranking officials but innocent bystanders, this time it was a Yemeni mother and her child who paid the price. Working out who stands to benefit is an altogether more difficult task.