DUBAI (Reuters) - Attacks on top Yemeni government targets blamed on al Qaeda suggest a vigorous army counter-terrorism campaign has failed to dent the militants' ability to humiliate the authorities with acts of brazen violence.
After months of militant raids on security forces, foreigners and government officials, Yemen's army launched a concerted air-and-ground campaign late last month against militant bastions in Abyan and Shabwa provinces.
The push followed a series of drone strikes, widely believed to have been carried out by Yemen's U.S. ally, against suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) targets in April.
The campaign drove the militants from some strongholds in the south but the government has failed to prevent what appear to be a spate of retaliatory attacks by the insurgents.
The militants "want to make sure that the population knows that they can respond in kind, that they still have a presence," said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College.
"They can fight back even though they are under attack. It's all about signalling ... particularly to supporters and others, that they're still a force to be reckoned with," Ranstorp said.
A gun battle with militants erupted near the presidential palace in Sanaa on Friday, killing four soldiers, and the defence minister survived an apparent assassination attempt when gunfire erupted near his convoy in Shabwa. Official reports later said the gunfire was celebratory.
On Sunday, suspected militants tried to storm a security checkpoint in the same area in the capital and three of them were killed. The same day a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into a military police building in the coastal city of Mukalla, killing at least 10 soldiers and a civilian.
The bloodshed is closely watched by Western counter-terrorism services concerned to help Yemen's military overcome longstanding weaknesses in equipment and morale.
Washington is worried that AQAP, which has masterminded foiled attacks on international airliners in the past, will use Yemen as a springboard for future attacks on the West.
Some AQAP members come from Saudi Arabia, the oil power that shares a long and porous border with Yemen, and one of the group's goals is to topple the ruling al-Saud family.
DIVIDED SECURITY FORCES
The army campaign bears a striking resemblance to a similar offensive that took place in 2012, when the military drove out al Qaeda's local offshoot, Ansar al-Sharia, from strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa.
That campaign was a response to a push by al Qaeda to extend its reach while the state was distracted by protests calling for the removal of longtime former President Ali Abullah Saleh.
The Islamists managed to hold territory for about a year, declaring many towns Islamic emirates, before the army eventually drove them out.
Nearly two years on, the army finds itself fighting a similar campaign against al Qaeda militants who have managed to regroup in the months since the last army drive.
The army's shortcomings, too, look familiar. They include an under-equipped, under-qualified and divided security apparatus as well as the absence of a long-term strategy to deal with the areas cleansed of militants, analysts said.
Divisions in the military were exacerbated after top General Ali Mohsen, leader of the 1st Armoured Infantry division, defected in the 2011 unrest that eventually ended Saleh's reign.
"I think the problem of a divided military...is still with us. Maybe to a lesser degree than a couple of years ago. The divisions within the forces are still there, and there are divided loyalties. Some are not trusted to participate in this campaign," said Yemeni political scientist Abdulghani al-Iryani.
Iryani said that though this campaign was a repeat of 2012's in terms of strategy, approach and impact, the political circumstances were different.
"In 2012, there was no intention to take the war all the way...so all they did was disperse al Qaeda from Abyan, thus creating problems in al-Bayda and Hadramawt and other places. This time, I think this is more carefully planned and considered, and I think they'll go after them all the way."
"Hopefully it will do more but I don't think the military option is viable for fighting terrorism. You really need to do a lot of police work on the ground and over a period of time and at the same time deal with the root causes of radicalisation."
NO LARGER STRATEGY
A senior security official told Reuters security forces were slowly recovering from the divisions of 2011.
"But this recovering does not mean we don't need more counter-terrorism forces. We have hundreds of these forces but they're not enough. We need to train more individuals and need more lethal equipment to increase the efficiency of these forces who have proven their effectiveness in confronting al Qaeda."
The official did not specify what equipment was needed but military experts say Yemen's army needs more modern weaponry and equipment for counter-insurgency warfare, such as night-vision goggles.
Then, as now, the militants have largely fled the more urban areas to more rugged and inaccessible regions of the country. A key issue now, says International Crisis Group's senior Yemen expert April Longley Alley, is what plan the army has for the regions where they have driven out the militants.
"What is the plan then to prevent al Qaeda from regrouping in those areas or near those areas? ... There's no concerted effort to talk about what's next," Alley said.
For instance, she said, there was no clear plan about how to strengthen local law enforcement in those areas or to implement development strategies in areas susceptible to being a base, once again, for al Qaeda.
In the past al Qaeda has appeared to exploit a lack of development and the government's failure to provide basic services to gain some support in some poor areas.
"Yemenis in the south say that poverty and the government's failure to provide basic security, services and education all work to al Qaeda's benefit. They claim that, increasingly, al Qaeda has been able to exploit the situation by recruiting frustrated young people into its rank-and-file," Alley said.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and Jon Boyle)