by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 22 March, 2001
extraordinary security, US Vice-President Dick Cheney set foot in
Yemen last week and declared: "We have increasingly
developed close relations between ourselves and Yemen."
Leaving behind most of his staff
and the press corps in the presumed safety of Egypt, Mr Cheney
arrived on a military plane which carried out "evasive
manoeuvres" as it dipped between the mountains into Sana'a
Once safely on the ground, he
ventured no further than the airport buildings, where President
Ali Abdullah Salih and others had travelled to meet him. Two hours
later, he took to the sky again in another flurry of evasive
Mr Cheney's trip, the first by a
high-ranking American since George Bush senior - then
vice-president - visited Yemen in 1986, may not have been strictly
necessary but, given the need for security co-operation, omitting
Yemen from his 11-country Middle East tour would have aroused
Reports that some 400 American
"spies and military personnel" are already in Yemen,
helping to track down remnants of al-Qa'eda, appear to be
exaggerated. The reality, according to official sources, is that
there will be three American teams of "advisers and
trainers", each with 20-30 members.
These will be rotated at monthly
intervals so, although several hundred people may be involved, no
more than 100 are likely to be in Yemen at any given time.
The Yemeni government says it is
happy to have their assistance but wants them to stay out of sight
in order to avoid stirring up public opinion which is increasingly
hostile towards American policies in the region.
On the day Mr Cheney arrived,
eight political parties issued a statement condemning his visit
and accusing the US of trying to dominate the region militarily
and to destabilise its security.
The day after his visit, a
25-year-old Yemeni, variously described as unemployed or a
student, threw two grenades - readily obtainable in Yemen - into
the grounds of the US embassy in Sana'a. He was arrested and found
to have a third grenade in his possession.
Although there are suspicions that
he may belong to a militant group, some sources claim he is
On March 11, a Briton working for
a marine company in Hudeidah was shot in the neck by two
unidentified men on a motor cycle. The man, David John, is
recovering in hospital and, once again, the motives for the attack
Meanwhile, the purge of Yemen's
education system - intended to root out the causes of religious
militancy - shows signs of flagging. The private al-Iman
university, run by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, leader of the
radical wing of the Islah party, is back in business after a brief
closure by the authorities.
About 7,000 people attended
celebrations on March 13 to mark the university's ninth
anniversary. Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, Yemen's parliamentary
speaker, praised its academic achievements while Sheikh Zindani,
who is also the university's rector, portrayed the clamp-down on
religious extremists as a war against Islam.
Before its temporary closure,
al-Iman university had about 800 foreigners among its 6,000
Until the events of September 11,
Yemen was a popular place for foreigners to study Islam, and
students at the more extreme institutions sometimes moved on into
al-Qa'eda or similar organisations.
Since then, the authorities have
arrested and expelled large numbers of foreign students. Twelve
Malaysian students, aged 15-25, who were arrested last month have
now been freed following pressure from the Malaysian government.
The twelve were studying at an
unregistered school, Ma'ahad Tahfiz al-Quran in Ta'izz. Six others
from the same school evaded arrest and took refuge in the
The crumbling "war on
terrorism" in Yemen's educational system is further evidence
that Mr Cheney's pilot is not the only expert in evasive