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Yemen overview, 2002-3


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 12 months in Yemen have been dominated, once again, by aspects of the American-led ‘war against terrorism’. As a country that lies off the beaten track of the world’s media organisations except when something untoward happens, Yemen also tends to be a source of imaginative and fanciful terrorism tales. In November one British newspaper reported that 'Usama bin Laden had taken up residence in ‘the lawless tribal region’ of Hadhra Maug [sic], which has ‘long waged war with the government in Sana'a’. British forces from the Special Air Service were said to be leading the search.

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, described Yemen as a ‘terrorist-infested no-man’s land’ which ‘may have sealed its fate’ by not extraditing suspects wanted by the United States.

None of this contributes much to a proper understanding of the real situation in Yemen or the efforts that are being made to deal with it. In the face of formidable difficulties and with limited resources, Yemen’s co-operation with other countries in the security field has, as one western ambassador noted, reached levels that nobody would have expected just a few years ago.

That is not to deny the continuing problem of Islamic militants influenced by bin Laden and the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, but in some areas there has been a distinct improvement. It may be tempting fate to mention it, but at the time of writing no foreigner had been kidnapped for months. Each year from 1996 to 1999 the total of foreign hostages ran well into double figures and in the worst year - 1997 - fifty were kidnapped.

Last October, however, an attack on the French oil tanker Limburg, off Mukalla, appeared to be almost a carbon copy of the attack that blew a huge hole in USS Cole and killed 17 American sailors in Aden harbour two years earlier.

A small boat laden with explosives rammed the Limburg, setting it ablaze and releasing more than 90,000 barrels of oil into the sea. One Bulgarian crew member died but the others escaped.

Suspicions pointed strongly towards bin Laden’s network. A faxed statement, purportedly signed by bin Laden, broadcast by al-Jazeera satellite channel a few days later congratulated ‘the Islamic community’ on the Limburg attack.

‘By exploding the oil tanker in Yemen,’ it said, ‘the holy warriors hit the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community, reminding the enemy of the heavy cost of blood and the gravity of losses they will pay as a price for their continued aggression on our community and looting of our wealth. ’

The oil pollution from the attack affected some 50 miles of coastline and, according to the Yemen Times, caused difficulties for Hadhrami fishermen. New security measures banned fishing boats from operating near port entrances and shipping lanes.

In November Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, a leading al-Qaeda suspect, died in Marib province along with five others - all said to have al-Qaeda connections -when an unmanned Predator drone belonging to the CIA fired a rocket at the car in which they were travelling.

Al-Harithi and Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, another man whose arrest was demanded by the United States, had been on the run for more than a year. In December 2000 an attempt to capture them by Yemeni forces had led to a battle near Marib in which more than 20 soldiers and tribesmen died.

The rocket attack, similar to the ‘targeted killings’ of Palestinian militants carried out by Israeli forces, was believed to be the first American action under the assassination policy approved by President Bush in the wake of September 11.

According to a report in the Christian Science Monitor, a key role in preparing for the Predator strike was played by Edmund Hull, the US Ambassador in Yemen, who had personally gone out into the Yemeni countryside with a team of officials and bribed tribesmen for information on al-Harithi’s whereabouts. The State Department refused to comment on the report.

A farcical episode occurred a few weeks later when Spanish warships - acting at the behest of the United States - stopped an unflagged freighter, the So San, 600 miles off the Horn of Africa. It was found to be carrying 15 Scud missiles from North Korea and 85 drums of unidentified chemicals hidden under bags of cement.

Although the seizure was clearly directed against North Korea, an ‘axis of evil’ member, the weapons turned out to be a legitimate purchase by the Yemeni government, which had apparently informed the Americans beforehand.

Amid a good deal of embarrassment in Washington, the vessel was eventually allowed on its way.

‘There is no provision under international law prohibiting Yemen from accepting delivery of missiles from North Korea,’ White House spokesman An Fleischer said.

In December, a 30-year-old Yemeni shot dead three American missionaries at a Baptist-run hospital in Jibla, central Yemen. The gunman, who was overpowered by security staff, appeared to be an extreme Islamist and allegedly told police that he killed the Americans to ‘get closer’ to God.

The American Southern Baptists have been working in Yemen for 35 years and their hospital at Jibla has a high reputation for its medical work, though it has sometimes been accused of trying to spread Christianity. A chapel at the hospital was closed in 1982 following complaints from Muslims.

The killings came just 48 hours before the Baptists were due to hand over the hospital to a Yemeni charity as part of a cost-cutting exercise.

A few days earlier, Jarallah Omar al-Kuhali, deputy secretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist Party, was shot dead in Sana’a by a man armed with two guns as he finished making a speech at a conference organised by the Islah party.

It was widely believed that the killings of Jarallah - a respected figure across the political spectrum - and the Jibla missionaries were related, possibly carried out by an extremist cell targeting foreigners and secular Yemenis.

Jarallah’s death was followed a fortnight later by that of another veteran politician, Yahya al-Mutawakkel, a former interior minister and a senior official in the ruling General People’s Congress parry. He died along with four other people in a car crash in Lahej province.

The third parliamentary election since the unification of north and south Yemen took place on schedule in April (though constitutional changes in 2000 had extended the period between elections from four years to six).

The General People’s Congress (GPC) increased its majority, winning 238 of the 301 seats. The tribal/Islamist Islah party won 46 and the Socialists, who had boycotted the 1997 election, won eight.

As on previous occasions, polling was marred by complaints of irregularities and some violence.

According to the Supreme Commission for Elections, 14 people were injured but it was later reported that three had died of their wounds. The violence, however, was far less than in the municipal elections of 2001 when 29 people were killed, or the 1997 parliamentary elections when at least 11 died.

There were also reports of mischief involving ballot boxes in several areas and the Yemen Times published a photograph of under-age children forming a long queue to vote at a polling station in Amran province.

Even so, the paper suggested the 2003 elections were generally better-conducted than in the past, with more transparency and more awareness among voters.

Despite a maturing approach to the electoral process, 13 years after the birth of Yemen’s multi-party system there is still no sign of the ‘peaceful rotation of power envisaged by the constitution The GPC has an apparently unassailable majority in parliament and the opposition parties remain in disarray This time, the Socialists and Islah tried to avoid splitting the anti-government vote by means of an electoral pact in more than 100 constituencies - but it seems to have had little effect.

In the cabinet reshuffle that followed the elections, Abdul Kader Bagammal remained as prime minister, though 17 newcomers joined the 35-member government which promised to make fighting poverty, reforming education and combating terrorism its main priorities. New faces but a host of old, familiar problems.

August 2003