Security Brief-Aden Airport Attack: Yemen’s Government targeted
Week of December 28, 2020 | Issue 17
Plane used to transport Yemeni Cabinet Ministers to Aden Airport, Yemen
Date: December 30, 2020
Location: Aden Airport, Aden, Yemen
Parties involved: Yemen; Saudi Arabia; Southern Transitional Council; Yemeni Government; Houthis.
The event: An explosion occurred at Aden Airport on Wednesday, December 30 as members of the newly formed Yemeni government disembarked a plane from Saudi Arabia. The blast caused at least 26 deaths and wounded over 50 people who had gathered to welcome the ministers in an event which was live-streamed. A security official at Aden Airport has reported that three mortar shells landed on the airport terminal, though this information is yet to be verified. All cabinet members were taken safely to the Presidential Palace in Aden where a second blast occurred soon after; no injuries or casualties have been reported at this location. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. Yemen’s Information Minister, Moammar Al-Eryani, has blamed the Houthis; however, they have denied any involvement.
The arrival of government ministers into Aden Airport from Saudi Arabia was a significant event which had been heavily publicised as a celebration of the successful negotiations in Saudi Arabia between the Yemeni Government and Southern Transitional Council (STC). On December 18, these parties had agreed upon a power sharing agreement after a year of talks and infighting over how to rule Yemen’s southern provinces. Therefore, the attack on Aden Airport upon the arrival of the ministers can be seen as an attempt to shatter the progress made and undermine the new, more unified government in Yemen. Not only does this attack represent a threat to the new government itself, but also to the many Yemeni civilians who had shown their support by attending the event. Thus, the perpetrator(s) seeks to silence allies of the legitimate government.
The timing of the attack at the moment ministers left the plane indicates that they were the most likely target. Therefore, the fact that all escaped the attack unscathered suggests that there were indeed some adequate security measures in place which prevented the perpetrators directly targeting the plane and its high-profile passengers. Nevertheless, there are a number of security flaws which, if addressed, could have prevented or mitigated the number of civilian casualties at the airport. Firstly, the time and location of the arrival of the ministers’ plane had been heavily publicised. This meant that a significant number of people had gathered to welcome the ministers and that the perpetrators were well aware of the details of the event. It is understandable that the politicians would want to highlight the new, more positive chapter of Yemeni governance by involving its citizens. However, because of the context of the Yemeni war and the risks posed to life, a more restricted public presence could have mitigated the devastation which occurred. Specifically, the event could have been organised as an invitation only event, thus limiting knowledge of the time, location and significance of those present. Stricter security measures including searches of individuals and vehicles should have been in place as well as a perimeter established a safe distance from the airport. The fact that the arrival of the plane, and later the explosion, was live-streamed means that images and videos of the attack have been widely circulated. This benefits the perpetrators as a propaganda tool without the need to release such images themselves.
The perpetrators of the attack remain unknown. However, both Yemeni government ministers and analysts have considered the possibility that the Houthi rebels are responsible. Though they have denied responsibility, they have previously carried out many attacks on the Yemeni government as well as civilians and, with Iranian backing, have the weapons capability to conduct an attack such as this. Moreover, it would be in the interests of the Houthis to undermine and weaken the new unified government. The Houthis have enjoyed relative success in the Civil War against the Yemeni Government in recent months because ongoing fighting between the government and the STC had weakened the alliance against the Houthis. However, with the government returning to a power sharing agreement, the focus of the anti-Houthi coalition can return to targeting the Houthis rather than the distraction of infighting. If indeed the Houthis are responsible, it is very likely that attacks targeting the government and its supporters will become even more frequent in anticipation of a heavy handed and coordinated campaign by the Yemeni government and the Saudi coalition.
The Houthis are not the only group who would benefit from attacking the government and its allies. A number of terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State in Yemen (IS-Yemen) are also vying for power and a weakened government would create a vacuum which any of these myriad groups would seek to exploit. Of the other groups active in Yemen besides the Houthis, AQAP has been most active in recent weeks and is most likely to have the capabilities to carry out this attack. However, until the responsible actor is identified, no organizations should be overlooked and the Yemeni government, the STC and their respective military forces should remain vigilant of threats from all angles.