Brian Whitaker is Middle East Editor
of the Guardian newspaper. He writes regularly on Yemeni affairs
and is a member of the Society.
The last 10 months have witnessed the
most challenging period for Yemen since the 1994 war. In the
immediate aftermath of September 11 there were hints, at least
from the more hawkish elements in the United States, that Yemen
— along with Sudan and Somalia — could be targeted in a
second wave of the ‘war against terrorism
Fortunately, these fears have not been realised. This can be
attributed in large part to the careful approach adopted by
Yemeni leaders, faced with conflicting pressures to crack down
on supporters of Usama bin Laden and to oppose American policies
regarding Afghanistan and Israel.
It was inevitable, once bin Laden’s involvement in
September 11 became established, that the spotlight would turn
The problem dates back to the end of the Afghan war against
the Soviet Union when unemployed mujahideen flocked to Yemen —
one of the few countries where they could keep alive the spirit
of jihad without much harassment from the authorities. According
to the Yemeni authorities, more than 14,000 ‘Arab Afghans’
(as the veteran mujahideen are known) were deported during the
last five years.
At the same time, smaller numbers of Yemenis drifted off to
Afghanistan to support the Taliban regime and/or bin Laden. It
was reported in February that more than 20 Yemeni citizens had
been captured in Afghanistan by the Americans and transferred to
Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where they formed the second largest
national group after the Saudi prisoners.
Yemen also has a historical connection with the bin Laden
family, who originally came from Hadhramaut. Their modest
ancestral home briefly became a focus of media attention, much
to the chagrin of the Yemeni authorities. In November, a French
film-maker who attempted to interview Usama bin Laden's Yemeni
father-in-law was expelled for entering the country under false
pretences, on a tourist visa.
The strain that September 11 initially placed on
Yemeni-American relations eased gradually, and when President
Ali Abdullah Sail visited Washington in late November, Yemen was
officially described as a partner rather than a target in the
war against terrorism.
President Salih’s visit was reciprocated in March, when
Vice-President Dick Cheney included Yemen in his Middle East
tour. For security reasons, Mr Cheney did not venture beyond the
terminal at Sana’a airport during his two-hour stay.
Nevertheless, it was a sign of improving relations — the first
trip by a high-ranking American since George Bush senior (then
vice-president) visited Yemen in 1986.
In practical terms, Yemen’s anti-terrorism efforts have
centred on internal security and border controls. As the war
against the Taliban and al-Qa’eda progressed, the primary aim
was to prevent escapees from Afghanistan taking refuge in Yemen.
The visa system was tightened and work began (with American
help) on a system of computers and cameras at airports and
border crossings which will provide centralised monitoring of
everyone who enters or leaves the country.
The possibility of unauthorised entry, particularly along
Yemen’s 1,200-mile coastline, remains a problem. To deal with
this, the US is reportedly helping to set up a maritime police
force and providing 15 patrol boats.
In the view of a European diplomat, security inside Yemen has
improved considerably since September 11 and this has also
helped to deter tribal kidnapping of foreigners. In apparent
recognition of these efforts, the British Foreign Office dropped
its stern travel warning, which has had a severe impact on
tourism from the UK. Its current policy is to advise against
independent travel to Yemen and to recommend ‘that you should
only do so as part of an organised tour and if you have business
contacts, family or friends in the country’.
The difficulty of making arrests in Yemen was highlighted in
December when security forces, armed with a list of suspects
provided by Washington, tried to arrest three of them in Marib.
The suspects escaped, but at least 18 soldiers and four
tribesmen died in the ensuing gun and tank battle.
Nevertheless, large numbers of suspected al-Qa’eda
sympathisers inside Yemen have been rounded up and there are
unconfirmed claims that more than 170 are currently detained.
Events took a farcical turn in February when the FBI issued a
world-wide alert for six Yemenis, claiming they were ‘extremely
dangerous and likely to carry out terrorist attacks within 24
hours’. All six, it was later discovered, were already in
As in other Muslim countries, there was increased concern in
Yemen about the misuse of education for spreading religious
militancy. The government announced that the Islamic institutes
associated with the opposition lslah party would be incorporated
into the state educational system — though the move had been
planned before September 11.
In November, al-Baihani school in Aden — owned by a charity
— was forcibly closed. People living nearby told journalists
that its classes began at 5 am after morning prayers and
included exercises which resembled military training. The
private al-Iman university, run by Sheikh Abd al-Majid
al-Zindani, a leader of the lslah party’s radical wing, was
also temporarily closed.
For several years Yemen has been a popular place for Muslims
from abroad, including western converts, to study Arabic and/or
Islam. A few of these students have eventually moved on into
al-Qa’eda circles — among them John Walker Lindh, the
20-year-old American who studied in Yemen and was later arrested
during the war in Afghanistan.
Following Lindh’s arrest, large numbers of foreign students
were sent home from Yemen, mainly on technical grounds connected
with visas and residency permits.
One of the hazards faced by the Yemeni government in
co-operating with the ‘war on terrorism’ was the possibility
of an internal backlash — especially if security measures were
perceived as complying with American demands rather than
addressing Yemen’s own needs.
This required a careful balancing act. Collaboration with the
US, which now extends to American training of Yemeni special
forces, has generally been kept at a discreet level. At the same
time, Yemeni leaders have asserted their independence by
espousing causes popular with the Yemeni public. Earlier this
year, President Salih suspended his normal duties for a five-day
‘sit-in’ in his own office to protest at the situation in
Even so, this policy has caused some problems, though nothing
unduly serious. In October, there was a large demonstration
against the bombing of Afghanistan. There have been a number of
reported threats to the American embassy, including a harmless
grenade attack, and several small explosions directed at people
and buildings connected to Yemen’s Political Security
Organisation. Responsibility for the latter was claimed by a
previously unknown group calling itself ‘Sympathisers of al-Qa’eda’.
All this may sound like another grim year for Yemen but,
given the magnitude of the difficulties, it might be argued that
events have turned out reasonably well.
Threats to internal security have been a serious impediment
to Yemen s economic development for many years, particularly in
the tourism industry. Addressing the issue seriously as a result
of September 11 can therefore bring practical benefits to Yemen.
More effective monitoring of the coastline, for instance, may
not only keep out al-Qa’eda fugitives but help local fisheries
by keeping interlopers at bay.
The last year has certainly been a salutary experience and,
if the current efforts are maintained, may even become a
positive one. If that proves to be the case then Yemen will, for
once, have something to thank bin Laden for.