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First for Yemenis: Fear of Praying in the Mosque

 Dreaded mosque bombings associated with Iraq now seen in Yemen

[Sana’a] – Never before in his 25-years did Mansur Al-Bussi think the day would come when his mother would forbid him from going to the mosque to pray.

“I live near Al-Kibsi mosque and after the blast that happened (there) I was very afraid. I stopped going outside to pray in that mosque or in any other,” Al-Bussi, of slight build and wearing a light beard, told The Media Line. All his life, his mother had encouraged him to attend prayers. That stopped recently following a rash of attacks on mosques across Yemen. “My mother discouraged me, saying she is very afraid for me, because I am her only family,” Al-Bussi explained.

Assaults on places of worship are not without precedent in troubled Yemen. In 2008, a device believed to have been hidden in a motorcycle detonated at the Bani Salman mosque – a location frequented by military personnel – leaving fifteen dead.

In recent months the threat of such attacks and the potential for death and destruction have increased with the arrival of suicide bombers. Dual attacks carried out in synch by two pair of terrorists on the Bader and Al-Hashush mosques in Sana’a in March of this year killed 142 people – the deadliest terrorist attack in Yemen’s history. Then, on June 17, the first day of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, explosive-laden vehicles targeted two more mosques followed three days later by a similar device that was triggered at Qubat Al-Mahdi mosque. Attacks of this nature have continued into July.

In a brief online statement, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for one of the incidents, justifying the violent means as legitimate revenge against the rival Shiite Houthi who have “forced themselves on the people of Yemen.” Neighboring Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait have all suffered bombing attacks in recent months as well, many of the attacks targeting Shiite mosques. In some cases, ISIS claimed responsibility.

“God had mercy on us that day,” said Hassan Al-Nihmi, a man who had been praying in the Al-Kibis mosque at the time of the explosion. He told The Media Line that, “The car-bomb detonated (during prayers) when we were prostrating and the shrapnel went upwards – that is why there weren’t more victims,” he explained.

“Our lives are in jeopardy at this time. That’s why I have decided not to enter a mosque again until the situation has calmed down and Yemen overcomes this crisis of sedition,” Al-Nihmi said.

“Most of the time I do not pray in mosques because of my work,” Haithem Sbait, a bus driver, said, “but right now I am afraid just to pass by a mosque, fearing a suicide attack of some sort.”

One Yemeni went further, telling The Media Line that, “I have posted on my Facebook wall ‘boycott mosques.’” Mohammad Al-Ghurbani, a local poet and commentator, said that, “Until you ensure your safety, your lives are more important than prayers and mosques.”

Since the onset of the aerial bombing campaign against the Iranian-backed Shiites led by Saudi Arabia four months ago, the ranks of the Houthis have been stretched thin, affecting the group’s ability to secure the territory it controls and leading to bombing attacks in a number of cities.

Following its capture of the city in September of last year, the Shi’ite group has itself struggled to maintain security, leading to the current wave of attacks against places of worship.

“It is a normal thing for people to fear praying in mosques because they have become targets for terrorists like ISIS,” Mohammed Al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political office, told The Media Line. Al-Bukhaiti explained that ISIS targets mosques because it wrongly identifies the buildings as being linked to the Houthi, when in fact the people praying in them are Yemenis from a variety of sects.

In Yemen it is common for Shi’ites and Sunnis of all sects to pray side by side. Mosques are not designated as one or the other, though a congregation may have a majority leaning towards a specific sect, often because the imam is from that denomination.

“There are no mosques in Yemen that are specifically designated for Shafi’i or Zaidi people,” Al-Bukhaiti explained. “Yemenis simply pray in the nearest mosque, regardless of whether it is affiliated with the Houthi not.”

He explained that Houthi security forces are making every effort to protect mosques but have been hampered by the variety of tactics demonstrated by ISIS bombers and infiltrators.

“During Ramadan you find people filling the mosques – people who do not pray throughout the year, but do pray in the Holy Month of Ramadan,” Abdullah Al-Qasus, Imam of Al-Tawfiq mosque, told The Media Line. “However, this year is very different. People are very afraid after several mosques were bombed – especially those considered Houthi mosques,” the Imam said.

Al-Qasus suggested that people were particularly afraid to attend prayers during Friday sermons – the most important prayer of the week – as these have been especially targeted. But with recent attacks having been conducted at other times, it is even harder for worshippers to feel safe.

It is unlikely that Yemen would conform to the model practiced in other countries where Sunnis and Shi’ites worshipped separately, Mohammad Qaid, the director of the Ministry of Endowments and Guidance Office, told The Media Line. There are an estimated 1,300 mosques in Sana’a, none of which are designated to a particular denomination.

Nabil Al-Sharjabi, a political analyst, took the opposing view. “Yemen is on its way to becoming another Iraq – the targeting of mosques is a serious thing that never occurred in Yemen before,” he told The Media Line.

If Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – widely regarded as one of the most capable branches of the franchise — switches loyalty to ISIS, then the number of attacks on mosques is likely to increase. And this shift of allegiance appears likely, Al-Sharjabi warned.

“There isn’t much difference between suicide attacks in Yemen and in Iraq, except that Yemenis are new to them, and that those who are seeking to drag Yemen into a civil war have not, so far, succeeded,” historian Nebras Anam suggested.

The Houthi are growing weaker because of ongoing attacks from Saudi Arabia and the Southern Resistance, while extremist groups such as AQAP and ISIS are getting stronger because the state is divided and fighting itself.

In such a context, attacks against mosques are not likely to end anytime soon.