The US makes a mess
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 22 November, 2002
unnoticed while the world's attention is turned towards Iraq, the
United States is sliding into a small but possibly long and messy
war in Yemen.
On the night of November 2-3, an
unmanned Predator drone belonging to the CIA fired a rocket at a
car in Marib province, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, a leading
al-Qaeda suspect who had been on the run for more than a year.
Five others, all said to have
al-Qaeda connections, died with him.
So far as can be ascertained, this
was America's first action under the assassination policy borrowed
from Israel and approved by President Bush in the wake of
Less dramatically, more US action
has followed. Last weekend [NOV 17], an Associated Press
correspondent in Sana'a reported that American fighter planes were
patrolling the skies over Marib and al-Jawf provinces close to the
Saudi border and that Americans had been seen on the ground
working with Yemeni special forces.
These operations (as they are
currently described) are intended to "tighten the grip"
on al-Qaeda suspects who are believed to be relocating in
"tribal strongholds", a security official told the news
Yemen has long been earmarked by
the Washington hawks - and possibly by al-Qaeda too - as the next
battleground in the "war on terrorism", and now their
wish is being granted.
Viewed from Washington, the
rationale for direct intervention is simple: Yemen has been given
the names of suspects, and plenty of time to round them up, but
has largely failed to do so.
Some maintain this is because of
help that the Sana'a government received from Bin Laden
sympathisers and other Islamists during its war with the southern
socialists in 1994.
Whatever the degree of truth in
that, there are certainly more important factors - especially the
government's limited capabilities when it comes to dealing with
the tribes who shelter suspects.
Last December, under American
pressure, Yemeni forces tried to arrest Harithi and another man in
the lawless Marib province. A disastrous battle ensued, leaving at
least 18 soldiers and four tribesmen dead, but the suspects
President Ali Abdullah Salih has
survived in power for 24 years by avoiding head-on confrontations
with the tribes whenever possible. The Americans have no such
qualms and are dragging him along with them.
The Yemeni government has little
choice but to let it happen. Despite the dubious legality of
assassinating al-Harithi and the apparent infringement of Yemen's
sovereignty, there has been no official protest from Sana'a. More
recent US operations in the north were reportedly given cabinet
An intriguing role in all this is
played by Edmund Hull, the US ambassador, whose swashbuckling
manner has annoyed Yemeni officials ever since he arrived.
Shortly before the Predator
strike, according to a detailed report in the Christian Science
Monitor, Mr Hull personally went out into the Yemeni countryside
with a team of officials and bribed tribesmen for information on
Asked about this later at a press
conference, the State Department's spokesman refused to comment.
No matter how much this is
presented as a clean-up operation, the situation has all the
makings for a low-intensity war: a weak state, well-armed tribes,
a background of Islamic militancy that is likely to grow as the
campaign proceeds, and an uncertain but probably negative impact
on Yemen's stability.
Last week, after an apparently
serious threat to the 300-or-so Britons in Yemen, the Foreign
Office closed its embassy in Sana'a to the public and issued a
stern warning: "We advise against travel to Yemen, and advise
British nationals resident there to consider leaving."
Meanwhile, a 21-year-old man
arrested by the Kuwaiti authorities allegedly confessed that he
had raised $127,000 to finance the bombing of a hotel in Yemen
which is used by Americans.
These, we can be certain, are
clear signs that the clean-up of Yemen will not go unchallenged.