by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 27 September, 2002
AL-QAEDA spotlight has once again turned towards Yemen,
following a series of arrests in Pakistan and the United States as
well as Yemen itself.
Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni, was
arrested in Karachi after a gun battle, along with nine other
people, most of whom are said to be Yemenis.
Binalshibh, who is now in American
custody, has been dubbed "the 20th hijacker" because he
was allegedly due to have taken part in the September 11 attacks
but failed to get a US visa. The "20th hijacker" title
was earlier bestowed on Zacarias Moussaoui, who is currently
Meanwhile, six Americans of Yemeni
descent who allegedly belonged to a New York terrorist cell, are
awaiting a judge's decision on whether to grant them bail.
Five were arrested near Buffalo,
New York state, in mid-September. The sixth was arrested in
Bahrain and sent to the US. Two other suspects, named as Jaber
Elbaneh and Kamal Derwish, are thought to be in Yemen.
The men apparently went to
Pakistan to study Islam but are said to have also visited
Afghanistan where they allegedly heard a speech by Usama bin Laden
and received weapons training.
The men's lawyers say they are
victims of misinformation who pose no danger.
In Yemen, three al-Qaeda suspects
were arrested and two others killed when security forces stormed a
house in al-Rawdah on the northern fringe of the capital, Sana'a.
A woman in a neighbouring house
was injured, along with two members of the security forces, in a
gun battle that lasted almost two hours. Officials said a cache of
weapons was found during the raid.
These developments came amid
renewed attacks on Yemen from American conservatives and reports
that the United States might be planning to send snatch squads
into Yemen to make further arrests.
The Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul
Wolfowitz, claimed that Yemen, along with Georgia, is host to
terrorist training camps, though there is a lack of
"actionable intelligence" relating to them.
"Training camps, yes, but
also people plotting and doing plots," he told a joint
hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Wolfowitz did at least acknowledge
that the US is "working actively in different ways" with
both the Yemeni and Georgian governments. But an article in the
Wall Street Journal accused "the terrorist-infested no-man's
land on the tip of the Arabian peninsula" of refusing to
co-operate, adding that Yemen "may have sealed its fate when
it said last month that it would not extradite its
In reality, given the sensitivity
of Yemen's internal politics, there has been a surprising degree
of co-operation, particularly on the tightening of border controls
and the training of Yemeni special forces by the United States.
American demands for arrests have
brought wide-scale human rights abuses, with large numbers of
people now detained without trial. The Yemeni parliament recently
set up a special commission to investigate.
Although precise figures are not
known, it seems likely that many of those held are not genuine
al-Qaeda members. More serious suspects, who are usually well
armed, often escape or resist arrest. One failed arrest in Marib
last December left more than 20 people dead.
Much interest has focused on the
deployment of 800 US special forces to Djibouti, a short hop
across the sea from Yemen. The US has not confirmed the purpose of
the mission, although media reports have hinted that it could be
aimed against al-Qaeda members in Yemen.
Djibouti's acting foreign
minister, however, said it was only a military exercise which
began in August and would end in October.
Yemeni officials have been
reluctant to discuss the reports, but Associated Press cited
unnamed American officials as saying that negotiations between the
two governments are taking place.
The talks, which on the American
side involve the US ambassador in Yemen and General Tommy Franks,
the US regional military commander, are said to include discussion
of covert missions to capture or kill suspects, possibly as joint
Such operations would undoubtedly
carry high political and military risks that might offset any
benefits resulting from arrests.