Sarah Phillips is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney Centre for International Security Studies.

The images of the suicide bombing that killed nearly 100 people in Yemen last week were a gruesome indication of just how badly reality is diverging from the political transition in Yemen envisaged by the international community.

The GCC Initiative, which formalised the end of president Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33 years in power, was based on the hope that, once Saleh was gone, the state's formal institutions would assert themselves and drive a process of systemic political and economic reform.  

When former Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansoor Hadi fell into the top job in February, he landed in the middle of a factional struggle over who will inherit the real spoils of power in Yemen. This struggle revolves around the political ambitions of three main groups: former president Saleh and his family; General Ali Muhsin (Saleh's long time ally who defected after the first major massacre of protesters last year) and his supporters; and the al-Ahmar tribal family, the late patriarch of which was a pillar of the modern Yemeni state. It is unlikely that president Hadi will emerge from the struggle that surrounds him wielding autonomous executive authority.

As accusations and counter-accusations fly over who was 'really' behind the attack last week (which was claimed by Ansar al-Shari'a, a group with murky affiliations to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), the nature of Yemen's political problems are being starkly displayed.

Local media outlets affiliated with General Ali Muhsin claim that Saleh's loyalists masterminded the attack while, predictably, outlets affiliated with the former president maintain that the bomber was recruited by Ali Muhsin. What is striking is that neither side seems willing to acknowledge that al Qaeda/Ansar al-Shari'a could have acted without assistance from some part of the old regime. The level of distrust contained within these conspiracy theories illustrates the instability of the political base that is meant to fix Yemen's bigger problems, such as the rapidly increasing level of food insecurity and the spiraling economy.

In Yemen, it has always been difficult to know precisely where to draw the line between autonomous acts by al Qaeda and those that could, at least conceivably, be attached to factional infighting. Yet the rampant conspiricism benefits both sides: al Qaeda seems more entrenched than it perhaps is, and the incumbent elite seem the last line of defence against something truly awful.

The US should also be taking note of how this debate is playing out within Yemen because it highlights the intensely politicised debate surrounding an organisation it is trying to destroy.

In Yemen, al Qaeda is not only a network of ruthless militants but an accusation that can be leveled, with varying degrees of credibility, against members of the regime who have facilitated it. In this sense, al Qaeda is more than just a terrorist organisation; it is so often evoked as a domestic political pejorative that it has become enmeshed in mythologies about how national power functions. In becoming part of the narrative that sustains the squabbles of Sana'a's elites, al Qaeda is also viewed as a symbol of the regime's detachment from ordinary Yemenis. That the presence of al Qaeda has brought American drone attacks, air strikes, civilian casualties and the destruction of property only sharpens the symbolic connection between the carrying on in Sana'a and the violence that is either experienced or feared by Yemen's citizens.

While the US is being careful to emphasise that it is only conducting counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, not a broader counter-insurgency, it is wading into something much more complex than simply 'jihadis versus the state'. The problem of al Qaeda in Yemen is deeply political, which is why fighting it with drone strikes (that can now target people on the basis of suspicious activity) or with 'Special Operations Forces who are as comfortable drinking tea with tribal leaders as raiding a terrorist compound' is likely to fail.

Photo by Flickr user eesti.