On the brink

Print edition : January 29, 2010

Posters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at a shop in the capital, Sanaa. In the first week of January, the President announced that the security forces had eliminated many Al Qaeda fighters.-NASSER NASSER/AP

YEMEN has been on the boil for some time now, but it was the attempt by a young Nigerian to blow up an American plane over Detroit on Christmas Day that brought the country into the direct line of fire of the United States. The 24-year-old London-based student, named Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, was carrying explosives hidden in his undergarments. He confessed to having received training in Yemen from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Americans along with their close allies the British and the French briefly closed their embassies in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, citing security concerns. Western governments now say that Yemen is the new epicentre of global terrorism.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued stern warnings to the government in Yemen after the aeroplane incident. There have been implicit threats that the U.S. will intervene militarily if the government does not accede to demands for coordinated military action against the AQAP. Immediately after the attempt to blow up the plane, the White House despatched U.S. Army General David Petraeus to Yemen, where he offered more military aid and intelligence sharing. Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said that his government had no objection to sharing intelligence but remained opposed to joint military action with foreign forces.

The Obama administration is keen to deploy American Special Forces in Yemen to tackle the AQAP. Media reports say that American troops are already on the ground participating in joint operations with Yemeni security forces. The Washington Post stated in an editorial that the U.S. had already launched a military offensive in Yemen. Hillary Clinton said in early January that it was time for the international community to make it clear to Yemen that there are expectations and conditions for our continuing support for the government. Al-Qirbi stated that U.S. military intervention in Yemen would be counterproductive in the fight against terrorism in his country. Yemen is going to deal with terrorism in its own way in keeping with its own interests, he said.

The central government in Yemen has been fighting more serious battles for many years before the so-called Al Qaeda threat emerged.

Near the border with Saudi Arabia, separatist Houthi rebels have with increasing ferocity been waging a guerilla war. Last August, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with great fanfare, announced the final offensive against the Houthis. But it was only with the intervention of the Saudi army and the help of American air power that the Houthis were temporarily subdued; they are far from defeated. The Houthis have shown that they are capable of fighting on two fronts against government forces and the invading Saudi forces. They briefly took the battle across the Saudi border in November. Without the massive Saudi and U.S. intervention, the Saleh government would have collapsed.

Yemeni soldiers on patrol outside the main entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa. A 2008 photograph. The Embassy reopened on January 5 after a two-day closure.-NASSER NASSER/AP

In the south, a renewed secessionist movement is gaining momentum. South Yemen, which gained its independence in 1967 after driving out the British, joined the north in 1990 to form one united country. Since then the southerners have felt discriminated against. The south has had a progressive political culture. It was known as the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen and was aligned with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the 1980s during the Cold War. Many in the south had opposed unification. A civil war erupted in 1994, with the central government in Sanaa using Salafist and jehadist elements to crush the former socialists in the south. Now those opposed to unification have been regrouping in the south under the banner of the secessionist Southern Movement, which poses another serious challenge to President Salehs 30-year rule.

The Southern Movement is led by the former Marxist leader Ali Salem al-Bidh, the man responsible for negotiating the first reunification agreement.

The Houthis, also known as the Zaidis, are Shia tribespeople. They were the traditional rulers of Yemen for more than a thousand years before a coup in 1972 overthrew the imamate. The Yemeni Shiites comprise around 40 per cent of the countrys population of 22 million. Yemen is among the poorest states in the region. To make matters worse, its fast-depleting oil resources are expected to last only for another seven years or so. Much of the states revenues are earned through oil exports. The region that the Houthis dominate is among the most underdeveloped in Yemen. The Houthis first took up arms in 2004, citing political, economic and religious marginalisation by the Saudi- and U.S.-backed central government.

Both the Houthis and the Southern Movement are willing to find a peaceful solution but have insisted that the corrupt and authoritarian Saleh-led government has to be replaced first.

Even at the best of times, the Yemeni governments brief rarely extended beyond the major cities. The fiercely independent tribes, especially in the north, adhered to their own set of rules. Yemen is also awash with arms. The Interior Ministry put the number of guns among the population at the beginning of the decade at 60 million. For every individual, there are three guns. The jehadist elements always had strong roots in the north. Tens of thousands of Yemenis were encouraged to go to Afghanistan to fight the Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored war there. These Arab-Afghans form the core of Al Qaeda in Yemen today. Osama bin Ladens family roots are also in Yemen.

Al Qaeda first signalled its presence in Yemen by launching an audacious attack on the American battleship USS Cole in 2000. President Saleh had to promise total cooperation with the U.S. in the second Gulf war to prevent Yemen from being targeted after the events of September 11, 2001. Saleh had taken a principled stand during the first Gulf war and declined to join the American-led coalition that launched a 40-day war against Iraq. The U.S. and Yemens Gulf neighbours were livid with Saleh at the time. More than a million Yemenis were sent packing from their jobs in the Gulf, adding to the countrys economic woes.

The Arabic language institute in Sanaa where Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to blow up the American plane, used to study.-AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Then there is the perceived threat of a so-called Shia crescent emerging and encompassing the Gulf region under Iranian leadership. Saleh has accused the Houthis of trying to establish a Shiite zone along the countrys common border with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the President has alleged that the Houthis have established strong links with Al Qaeda. Al Qaedas animosity to the Shia brand of Islam is well known.

The Iranian government has strongly denied any involvement and has supported a united Yemen. At the same time, Teheran has been critical of Saudi and American intervention in the countrys internal affairs.

The Saudi authorities allege that the Houthis are the cats paw for Iranian and Shia expansionism. Though no clinching evidence has been provided about Iranian connivance with the Houthis, Washington and Riyadh continue to insist that Teheran is fishing in dangerous waters. The Saudis, however, have reason to be worried. The Shia-dominated population centres in Yemen lie adjacent to the restive minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia, which is concentrated in the provinces of Najran and Jizan, the site of the countrys eastern oilfields. The Shias in Saudi Arabia are known to be unhappy with the countrys Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam and their treatment as second-class citizens.

For the Yemeni government, the priority at the moment seems to be the fight against the Houthis. But the weak central government seems to have acceded to the Obama administrations pressures to adopt a more proactive role against the groups affiliated to Al Qaeda. The government does not want to talk about its close collaboration with the Americans. The popular mood in Yemen remains strongly anti-American.

President Saleh announced in the first week of January that the security forces had eliminated many Al Qaeda fighters. The U.S. provided firepower and intelligence to help the security forces kill around 34 suspected Al Qaeda fighters in the southern province of Abhyan. Local residents have said, however, that those killed were innocent civilians and that there were no Al Qaeda fighters in the area. Yemen is now the recipient of the largest U.S. counter-terrorism aid package after Pakistan.

U.S. intelligence agencies themselves said that the number of Al Qaeda activists did not exceed 200. Senior Yemeni officials have said that the threat posed by Al Qaeda is being exaggerated. Bouthaina Shaaban, the adviser to the Syrian presidency who was on an official visit to New Delhi, said that what was being witnessed in Yemen today was an orchestrated attempt by the West to divide Arabs on sectarian lines. She said that the presence of Al Qaeda in Arab countries was being used as a pretext for military intervention by the U.S. in the Arabian Peninsula.

The situation in Yemen has become further complicated because of the instability in Somalia, situated across the Gulf of Aden. The U.S.-sponsored overthrow in 2008 of the government led by the Islamic Courts has led to the rise of more militant groupings such as Al Shabaab. According to Western intelligence agencies, this group has a working relationship with the AQAP in Yemen. As a result of the meltdown of their state and increasing violence and destitution, more than a million Somalis have taken refuge in Yemen.

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