Islamic State attempts a comeback in Aden

On February 24, militants of the Islamic State claimed their first terrorist attack within the city of Aden since the end of November 2017. Since then, the terrorist group hadn’t conducted any attacks in the city, but this latest attack indicates a continued ambition to mount notable attacks in Aden. While there may be continued ambition, however, the attack did not demonstrate a matching capability. This latest attack on the counter-terrorism forces headquarters in the al Tawahi district of Aden was similar to previous attacks, but failed to breach the perimeter of the facility.

In November 2017, the Islamic State claimed five terrorist attacks within the city of Aden. All of these attacks targeted counter-terrorism forces and security personnel through various tactics. The most prominent attack was the November 5 attack against the Criminal Investigation Department in the Khormaksar district of Aden, during which a group of 12 IS militants briefly occupied the facility. The attackers used a suicide car bomb to breach the security perimeter of the building, allowing other militants equipped with small arms and suicide belts to take several hostages inside the building. The attack lasted through the night and led to the death of 29 Security Belt soldiers as they attempted to retake the building.

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The other attacks in November did not fit the same type of complex attack, instead they included two car bombings, used on their own without additional armed fighters, striking a headquarter of the Security Belt forces in the Mansoura district and the Finance Ministry building. The two remaining attacks were separate assassinations of alleged members of the counter-terrorism unit, using handguns.

This latest attack, on February 24, bears more resemblance to the complex attack against the Criminal Investigation Department. At least this appears to have been the intent behind it. Two separate vehicle borne improvised explosive devices were detonated by suicide bombers at the outer perimeter of the counter-terrorism unit’s headquarters, and six or seven – reports vary on the exact quantity – armed fighters equipped with suicide belts were killed in a firefight following the explosions.

While the Islamic State attackers came well equipped, with two VBIED of a decent size – estimated based on damage to surrounding structures to have contained an equivalent of at least 80 kg of TNT each – and at least six armed fighters to penetrate the base they targeted. They failed, however, to successfully breach the security perimeter and penetrate all the way into the heart of the counter-terrorism unit’s headquarters.

The failure of the attack appears to be related to ineffective pre-attack planning. The counter-terrorism facility has a very strong security perimeter including an extended entrance through multiple checkpoints. The militants, however, detonated both of their VBIED near the same location on the outer limits of this security perimeter. It would appear that the attackers were either unaware and unprepared for the complexity of the security perimeter that had been established at this location, or that they grossly overestimated their ability to fight their way through the security funnel following the initial detonations.

The fact that both VBIED detonated at the same location on the outer perimeter suggests perhaps this is where the attack failed, and the second VBIED was intended to breach the next layer of security within the security funnel. Even in this case, however, this would still have left multiple layers of security before the attackers would have been able to reach the headquarters.

The barriers that make up the security perimeter have actually been improved rather recently around the end of November and early December 2017. It is possible that this was due to the threat that was observed in the November 5 attack on the Criminal Investigations Department, though this could not be confirmed. Regardless of what incident exactly spurred the additional reinforcement of the security funnel at the counter-terrorism unit’s headquarters, the persistent attempts to improve facility security in the city of Aden is an essential element of the struggle against Islamic State capabilities in the city.