by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 29 January 1999
POLICE and security services in
Britain have launched a belated investigation into the activities of Abu Hamza al-Masri,
the London-based cleric who has been linked to the kidnappers of 16 western tourists and
to an alleged bomb plot against British and American interests in Yemen.
Abu Hamza's organisation, Supporters of Shariah (SOS) rejects
man-made laws in favour of God's law and recently advertised "military training"
for Muslims on the Internet.
Undeterred by police surveillance, Abu Hamza held a press
conference on January 20 where he called for the overthrow of the Yemeni government and
warned non-Muslims to stay out of the country or risk "coming back in a coffin''.
That, together with the continued tribal kidnappings, has prompted the British government
to write to all Britons in Yemen asking them to "consider whether their presence is
absolutely essential and, if not, to leave".
It is not yet clear whether the events in Yemen at the end
of December (see MEI 591) are just extreme
examples of everyday lawlessness or the start of something far more serious. The Islamic
Army of Aden-Abyan, which kidnapped the 16 tourists and was allegedly collaborating with
the five British Muslims arrested in Aden, is said to have a membership "in tens
rather than hundreds" - though it has certainly caused immense damage.
The immediate impact has been on Yemen's tourism industry,
which had been growing rapidly since the war of 1994 and last year attracted 100,000
visitors to the country. Many travel companies are now removing Yemen from their list of
However, the generalised threat to westerners in Yemen
could be far more serious if it proves to have substance and people working for foreign
companies and NGOs also start to leave. With the economy already precariously balanced,
the cumulative effect could be disastrous. Indeed, the Islamic Army's strategy may well be
to bring down the government through economic ruin.
On January 25, the Yemeni government applied for Abu
Hamaza's extradition from Britain, "to be tried on charges of carrying out terrorist
activities in Yemen and in several other Arab states". It is unlikely the request
will be granted, since Abu Hamza has British citizenship, but the move will help to
publicise Yemen's claim that that it is a victim of foreign-based terrorism.
As MEI went to press, the trial of the five Britons (and
another man who had a French passport which was not his own) was due to open in Aden. They
are accused of "membership of an armed group and possession of weapons, explosives
and unauthorised international communications devices, as well as starting to commit acts
of sabotage against Yemeni and foreign interests in Aden." All deny the charges and
have retracted their confessions which, four of them say, were obtained through torture.
Meanwhile, the trial of Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar,
self-styled commander of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, and two of his accomplices in the
December 28 kidnapping, was also due to resume. The problem for the government is what to
do with him. If imprisoned, he could become the focus for further kidnappings; if he is
executed, there could be violent reprisals, as Abu Hamza made clear at his London press
Unrelated to events in the south, kidnappings in the north
continue. The British oil worker abducted in Marib province on January 9 was released
after five days, amid widespread rumours that a ransom had been paid - which will do
little to discourage further kidnappings.
On January 17, a Dutch family of four (including two
children aged 7 and 8) and a British couple were taken hostage while driving from Sa'adah
to Sana'a. The two Britons, both in their sixties, were half-way through a six-month
contract with the Dutch-based aid organisation, Worldwide Services. The kidnapping was
reportedly led by a tribesman who is wanted for murdering a supermarket owner during a
robbery in Sana'a last October. To encourage him to give himself up, the authorities had
arrested two of his brothers. He then kidnapped the six foreigners in the hope of
exchanging them for his brothers.