Monday, January 11, 2010

Yemen: not al-Qaeda but the regime itself is a threat

 President Ali Abdallah Saleh (front row, second from left) at a parade.

It was predictable, but I was nevertheless amazed to see to what extend Yemen became hot news after the failed attempt at X-mas by the underpants bomber' to bring down an airplane over Detroit. The mere fact that this young Nigerian, Umar Farouq Abdelmutallab, had been trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen was enough to raise the interest.
It's logical, When the threats are directed against the West, we get interested. But Yemen generated lots of news amply before this Detroit incident.  Fighting in the north, mass demonstrations in the south and raids (with the help of the USA) on suspected hideouts or training centres of Al-Qaeda. Indeed, raids that were the cause that Al Qaeda sought revenge in Detroit.
These raids on villages in several areas of Yemen in which numerous civilians got killed, while it remains questionable whether they really hit Al-Qaeda cells, were by  themselves not enough to draw the attention (see for some news about the raids further down in this post and also here). Neither were stories about the fighting in the north against the Houthis big news (until the Saudis stepped in in November, that is). Also a wave of protests and separatist demonstrations in the South of Yemen passed almost unmentioned.
Only after the failed attack in Detroit the situation became different. See for instance what the New York Times all of a sudden had to say about  the shaky condition of the country - in fact a country on the brink of falling apart. The paper describes how Ali Abdallah Saleh, president since 1978, runs the country like a family business. His son Ahmed Saleh
is head of the Yemen Republican Guard and the country’s special forces. The president’s nephews — sons of his late brother — include Amar, the deputy director for national security; Yahye, head of the central security forces and the counterterrorism unit; and Tarek, head of the Presidential Guard. The president’s half brother is head of the air force.The sense of Yemen as a family corporation that has also enriched itself is part of the problem, Mr. Zafir (a political analyst, TP) said; the president’s mosque, al-Saleh Mosque, was completed less than two years ago and is said to have cost at least $120 million. “President Saleh wants his son to succeed him,” Mr. Zafir said. To make that happen, he has sought to consolidate power in his family’s hands, but his influence over the tribal chiefs has receded, Mr. Zafir said.
The paper adds some remarks about the fact that there used to be an understanding between Saleh and Abdallah Hussein al Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribe and of the most powerful coalition of tribes in the country, as well as the leader of the Islah-party, the second party after Saleh's own all powerful General People's Conference (Mutammar) Party. But Al-Ahmar, who was also speaker of the parliament, died in 2007 and Saleh hasn't managed to establish the same cordial relationship with his son and successor, Hamid Abdallah al-Ahmar. Hamid in fact criticized the president very sharply in August 2009. In an interview with al-Jazeera tv he said that the Saleh-era should be over, because of the mishandling by the president of most national issues in Yemen.

This falling out with the leader of the most powerful tribal coalition in the country who, in this very tribally oriented country,  yields at least as much power as the president and his entourage himself,  is one of the reasons why the country is in such a pitiful state. Other reasons are the neglect of the north, which resulted in the uprising of the Houthi's in the Sa'ada province, and  the systematic way in which the south, which until 1990 was the independent  People's republic of South Yemen, was subjected to the rule and whims of Sana'a, the capital.
And on top of all that there is the Al-Qaeda-story. Yemen has a long history with Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's mother was from Yemen to begin with, part of his family is from there, which explains some of the Qaeda-roots in the country. There have been several incidents in the past,  like the bombing in 2000 of the US warship Cole in the port of Aden, which took the lives of 17 US sailors, or attempted attacks on teh American embassy in Sana'a in 2001 and 2008. There was - more recently -  talk of a merger of the Saudi and Yemenite branches of Al-Qaeda. And there were stories that Al-Qaeda cadres  were willingly Incorporated in the army and other governmental institutions by Saleh in order to stave off threats from the Houthis in the north and the growing separatist tendencies in the south.

Ali Salem al-Beidh (picture), former vice-president of Yemen, later on president of the short lived South Yemeni Republic during a civil war in 1994, and now de facto leader of the separatists, took that line in an interview with the newspaper Gulfnews on November 29, 2009: 
this terror network has built a strong alliance with the regime in Sana'a, engineered and supervised by a leading member of the ruling regime. This is known by regional states, Egypt and the United States. I don't exaggerate when I say that some leaders of Al Qaida are in fact officers in the Republican Guard.
In the same interview Al-Beidh accused president Saleh also of the fact that he had drawn the Saudis in the war with the Houthis in the north of the country.

Interestingly the Houthis are of the same opinion. Its leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi (picture), who at the time had been declared dead at least two times by the regime, said in December that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has plunged the country into a state of chaos. "We had warned of Yemen falling prey to civilian massacres and other forms of collateral damage and of joining the ranks of Afghanistan and Somalia. Everyone well remembers the time when there was no talk of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh paved the ground for the emergence of al-Qaeda offshoots in Yemen'. But now ' its members have infiltrated into Yemen's army, intelligence service, universities, media and even educational centers. Yemenis nowadays consider al-Qaeda as a state apparatus which serves Saleh's interests in the fight against us and seeks to misrepresent Sa'ada residents as terrorists."

This being said, the country is the scene of numerous fights, incidents and unrest. On December 24th at least 30 al-Qaeda militants have been killed by an air strike in a remote mountainous area of Yemen, according to security officials. The strike took place as dozens of militants gathered in Shabwa province, east of the capital, Sanaa. Two senior al-Qaeda commanders in the Arabian peninsula could be among the dead, according to the officials. Al-Qaeda has carried out frequent attacks in Yemen in recent months.The Saudi government has recently expressed its concern about the resurgence of the movement in the region.
Earlier it was reported that the United States provided firepower, intelligence and other support to the government of Yemen as it carried out raids on December 19th against  suspected hide-outs of  Al Qaeda within its borders. According to the New York Times, which quoted  American officials familiar with the operations, the American support was approved by President Obama at the request of the Yemeni government. Yemeni officials said their security forces killed at least 34 militants. According to ABC News, the attack included American missiles.
The attacks occurred in the Arhad region of the governorate of Abyan. Residents of Abyan said that there was no al-Qaeda training camp in the area and that the raids had destroyed several homes. Abbas al-Assal, a local human rights activist who was at the scene, said 64 people were killed, including 23 children and 17 women. 'The government wants to show the world that it is serious in pursuing al-Qaeda elements and that the south of Yemen is a refuge for al-Qaeda. That is not true at all,'  al-Assal told the Associated Press by telephone. Ali Mohammed Mansour, an inhabitant of the area, gave similar casualty figures, and said that he helped bury the dead in a mass grave. 

The south staged a general strike to protest government policy and claims of oppression in January.
A security official on Sunday said three policemen had been wounded in clashes related to the strike in the city of Dhale.In the provinces of Dhale, Lahaj, Shabwa and Abyan, all shops were shut and transportation halted for six hours.
A security official said the policemen had been injured by members of the southern separatist movement. 

In the north Houthi fighters said on December 23 that they have managed to repel Saudi forces trying to infiltrate into Sa'ada Province. According to a statement released by the fighters, Saudi forces conducted multiple military operations in the morning to penetrate the Jebel al-Madood border region in northern Yemen via the southwestern village of al-Jabiri — some 600 miles (966 kilometers) from the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
The statement said the hours-long operations ended in failure, with Saudi troops suffering significant casualties. Houthi fighters said they set several Saudi military vehicles ablaze.
Saudi fighter jets launched eight air strikes on the northern border areas of Jebel al-Dukhan and Jebel Dhar al-Hamar. Saudi troops, meanwhile, used more than 300 rockets to target suspected Houthi positions.

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