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 destinations.
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 conference.
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.