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Yemen overview, 2003-4


Brian Whitaker is Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper. He writes regularly on Yemeni affairs and is a member of the Society. 

The high point of the year for President Ali Abdullah Salih was surely his attendance at the G-8 summit of industrialised countries in June. Despite extraordinary security precautions he was even allowed to wear his jambiyya for a photograph with President Bush.

Yemen’s inclusion as a guest at the summit set the seal on a foreign policy which has developed out of sheer necessity and may not be popular on the streets of Sana’a but is nevertheless proving effective. After a rocky period in its relations with the United States – over the 1991 war with Iraq, for example, the bombing of USS Cole in 2000, and military threats from Washington hawks – Yemen is now clearly in the American camp.

In some respects Yemen’s position is similar to that of Pakistan. Events have made it a key player in the ‘war on terror’ and its government has no option but to co-operate with the US, though it can elicit some rewards for doing so.

On a visit to Britain last December, former prime minister Abd al-Karim al-Iryani claimed that ‘up to 90%’ of al-Qaeda cells in the country have now been rooted out and dismantled. ‘I believe that Yemen has been the most successful country in the Middle East fighting terrorism,’ he said. There is some evidence to support this view: in contrast to the horrific attacks in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and previous events in Yemen, the country has witnessed remarkably little activity by al-Qaeda supporters during the last 12 months.

In September, however, Amnesty International reported that the ‘war on terror’ was having a detrimental effect on human rights in Yemen and that almost 200 people were held in detention without trial. It said the authorities acknowledged that some of the security measures they had taken breached Yemeni laws but felt this was unavoidable in their efforts to stave off American pressure.

Partly to address complaints about the detentions, Yemen embarked on a programme to ‘re-educate’ Islamists and then release them. The theological dialogue committee, chaired by Hamoud Abdulhamid al-Hitar, a high court judge, focuses on ‘correcting’ two widespread beliefs among the militants: that they are entitled to kill non-Muslims in the name of jihad, and that Yemen’s political system is contrary to Islam.

The scheme applies only to detainees who have not committed actual acts of terrorism. Those who accept the teaching are asked to sign repentance documents before they can be released. They are also told they will be kept under surveillance and their families must act as guarantors of their future good behaviour.

Judge Hitar, who travelled to Britain to explain the pioneering scheme to the Foreign Office, the police and several Muslim organisations, said the success rate with the first 100 released detainees was about 90%. Whether this is entirely the result of theological dialogue is unclear: as a further incentive, many of the former detainees have been given jobs in the army, since Yemeni officials believe unemployment is a major cause of Islamist militancy.

Extensive co-operation on the terrorism front has also been reported between Yemen and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, with each side arresting and handing over suspects wanted by the other. In February it emerged that the Saudis had begun constructing a barrier along the 1,500-mile frontier to stop weapons and militants being smuggled into the kingdom.

Saudi newspapers said border patrols were intercepting weapons from Yemen almost every day. These included 90,000 rounds of ammunition and 2,000 sticks of dynamite seized since the suicide attacks on housing compounds in Riyadh in May 2003. A Yemeni official later disputed the extent of the problem, saying that most of the illicit weapons in the kingdom have come from Iraq. Yemen does, however, admit to a lucrative trade – believed to be worth $200 million a year – smuggling qat into Saudi Arabia.

Yemen complained that the barrier – 25 miles of which had reportedly been completed – was a breach of the border treaty signed in 2000. The treaty created a 13-mile demilitarised zone on either side of the frontier, within which shepherds from both countries would have cross-border grazing rights. It was these rights that the barrier allegedly infringed. Subsequent negotiations appear to have resulted in agreement on alternative ways to monitor the border.

In March Yemen hosted an international conference on democracy, human rights and the International Criminal Court. Supported by the EU, it was attended by more than 800 delegates from 52 countries and passed off successfully, despite continued warnings from the British government that ‘all but the most essential travel’ to Yemen should be avoided. In a keynote speech, President Salih hailed democracy as ‘the choice of the modern age for all people of the world and the life-raft for political regimes, particularly in the Third World’.

A document issued at the end of the conference, known as the Sana’a Declaration, highlighted the importance of free elections, the rule of law, independent media, rights of women, civil society and a flourishing private sector. Some observers felt that airing such issues was a positive step in its own right, while others doubted that it would change much, pointing out that even in Yemen – which has gone further down the democratic road than many Arab countries – there is still a substantial gap between the theory and the practice.

In May British police arrested Abu Hamza al-Masri, the London-based preacher, following an extradition request from the United States. He is wanted for trial on a number of charges which include conspiring to take hostages in Yemen.

This relates to a tragic affair in 1998 that began when 10 young Muslims with links to Abu Hamza’s Supporters of Sharia organisation travelled from Britain to Yemen and made contact with the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, regarded as a local affiliate of al-Qaeda, which had a training camp at Huttat in Abyan.

According to the Yemeni authorities, the young men were planning a series of attacks on western interests in Aden – the Anglican church, a restaurant popular with foreigners, and a top-class hotel – but the plan failed when six of them were arrested. The Islamic Army then kidnapped a party of 16 western tourists (12 Britons, two Australians, two Americans, plus four Yemeni drivers) in the hope of exchanging them for the arrested men. The kidnap ended disastrously when four of the hostages and two of the kidnappers died during a rescue attempt by the Yemen army.

About an hour after seizing the hostages, the leader of the Islamic Army used a satellite phone to call Abu Hamza in London and discuss the kidnapping. Abu Hamza admits that he received the call. The American charges say that Abu Hamza also received three calls from the satellite phone on the day before the kidnapping, that he provided the Islamic Army with its phone and that he paid £500 in advance towards the cost of calls.

Britain has previously turned down requests from Sana’a to hand over Abu Hamza for trial in Yemen. The American extradition request will take several months to process through the British courts and in the meantime Abu Hamza is held in a top-security prison.

The long-delayed USS Cole trial opened in Sana’a in July and is likely to continue for some time. The guided-missile destroyer was refuelling in Aden harbour in October 2000 when two men sailed an explosives-laden dinghy alongside it and blew themselves up, killing 17 American sailors and blasting a 40-ft hole in the warship.

Six suspects were formally charged with planning the attack, belonging to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, forming an armed group and carrying out various criminal acts. Only five appeared in court. The sixth man, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri – also known as Mohammed Omer al-Harazi – is described as the mastermind. He left Yemen a few days before the explosion and disappeared but was captured in the United Arab Emirates two years later and is currently held by the US at an undisclosed location. Nashiri is the cousin of a suicide bomber who blew up the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998, according to the US.

June saw the outbreak of Yemen’s bloodiest internal conflict since the war of secession in 1994, with tanks, warplanes and possibly as many as 10,000 troops deployed against a rebel cleric and his supporters in Saada province. By mid-July 135 civilians and 49 members of the security forces had been killed, according to official sources.

The cleric at the centre of the conflict, Hussein al-Houthi (a Zaidi and a former member of parliament for the Haqq party) was accused of multiple crimes by the government: highway robbery, setting up unauthorised religious schools, raising the Hizbullah flag, damaging a water project, urging citizens to withhold taxes, attacking mosques and declaring himself Imam – a title not used in Yemen since the 1962 republican revolution.

For once, there was no suggestion of a link to al-Qaeda, nor did the roots of the trouble appear to be sectarian strife, since a number of prominent Zaidis had disowned Houthi. The truth, or otherwise, of the allegations against him was difficult to establish, but he was known to be in charge of Believing Youth (Shabab al-Mu’min), an organisation whose teenage members caused disruption at mosques by chanting ‘Death to America, Death to Israel’ after Friday prayers. The youths had often been often arrested, only to return later and do it again.

Though the government clearly feared that Houthi’s anti-American campaign might spread and get out of hand, sections of the Yemeni press criticised what they saw as an excessive use of force by the military. The conflict was still continuing in late July.

August 2005