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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.