by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 12 March 1999
THE LONDON-BASED imam, Abu Hamza
al-Masri, has issued a new threat on behalf of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan. It warns
the British and American ambassadors to leave Yemen and says that if they stay "the
strike will be painful for the enemies of Islam".
The handwritten statement was signed by "Abu al-Muhsin",
who is said to be the new commander of the Islamic Army following the arrest of its
founder, Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar.
Abu al-Hassan is one of 14 people on trial in Yemen
accused of kidnapping 16 western tourists and killing four of them on December 29 last
year. He could face the death penalty if convicted. Nine defendants in the kidnapping
trial are still at large, and last week the judge in Zinjibar ruled that the case could
continue in their absence because an advertisement summoning them to court had been
published in the Yemeni press.
In the parallel "bomb plot" trial in Aden, the
court was shown communications equipment allegedly used by the defendants. It included a
global positioning system (GPS), satellite dishes and mobile phones. One of the
defendants, Malik Harhara, said he used the GPS to work out his position when driving out
of town. The Yemenis say such devices are normally used only by oil companies and the
Abu Hamza is linked to both cases. He is the usual channel
for communiques by the Islamic Army and admits that he spoke to Abu al-Hassan by satellite
phone during the kidnapping. The 10 defendants in the Aden trial, who all arrived in Yemen
from Britain, include Abu Hamza's son and stepson, and another man who is engaged to a
member of his family. The Yemenis claim that all 10 were involved with Abu Hamza's
organisation, Supporters of Sharia. As MEI went to press, defence lawyers were seeking
their release on the grounds that correct procedures had not been followed during their
arrest and detention.
A British lawyer, Rashad Yaqoob, who was helping the
defence team, was expelled from Yemen on February 25, saying he had been beaten, abused
and threatened by security forces. He was arrested on February 20 and taken to hospital
shortly afterwards. The Yemeni authorities claimed he had made a "false statement to
the public prosecutor" by alleging that Abu Hamza's son, had been "tortured and
Part of the background to both trials is American and
British involvement in the Muslim world and, more specifically, the growing military links
between Yemen and the United States.
On March 2 the editor al-Haq, an opposition newspaper, was
arrested for an article which said that the government was to offer military facilities
for the United States on Socotra, a 100-mile-long island at the entrance to the Gulf of
Aden. The editor, who was released after five days, may face prosecution for publishing
"false information that threatens national security".
Socotra is the latest of several places to be mooted as a
possible refuelling and supply base for the US Navy; others have been Aden and Mukha on
the Red Sea coast. Socotra, because of its sparse population and relative inaccessibility,
has often been the subject of unconfirmable rumours. During the Cold War there were
stories about a huge Soviet naval base on the island, and more recently the Islamic Army
was alleged to be training there.
However, there is no doubt that military co-operation
between Yemen and the United States is increasing, and that the Yemeni government is
worried about the controversy it has aroused, not just among extreme Islamists.