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Yemen overview, 2004-5


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

For the last twelve months Yemen has mostly remained outside the international spotlight – which might be considered a blessing. There have been no serious attacks by al-Qaeda elements recently, and the British Foreign Office no longer urges travellers to stay away from Yemen entirely though it warns that the threat from terrorism remains high and advises people to avoid the Sa’ada area in the far north.

An armed rebellion around Sa’ada officially ended last September with the killing of Hussain al-Houthi, a Zaidi cleric whose supporters had held out for almost three months against the full might of the Yemeni military. Although details from independent sources are scarce, it seems that as many as 400 people – civilians, rebels and troops – may have died, making it the bloodiest internal conflict in Yemen since the war of secession in 1994.

The precise reasons for the rebellion are still unclear. The government accused al-Houthi of being a royalist who sought to re-establish the Imamate that was abolished in 1962. His organisation, ‘Believing Youth’, which caused disruption in mosques by chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, was also said to be modelled on Hizbullah. His contacts with Iran aroused suspicion, and there may have been fears that he was trying to emulate the militant Iraqi shi’a leader, Muqtada al-Sadr. Large sections of the Yemeni press and opposition, however, viewed the government’s response as an over-reaction, suggesting that the conflict could have been resolved through negotiation. Fighting in the Sa’ada area resumed towards the end of March and continued until mid-May. This followed an unsuccessful visit to Sana’a by al-Houthi’s father who had sought a meeting with the President and the release of prisoners. In March, Shaikh Muhammad Ali Hassan al-Moayad, a prominent Yemeni cleric, and his young assistant, Muhsin Yahya Zayed, were convicted by a New York court of ‘conspiring to provide material support and resources’ to al-Qaeda and Hamas. Their trial was the result of a highly controversial ‘sting’ operation in which the Shaikh and his assistant were lured from Sana’a to an hotel in Frankfurt – allegedly to receive a large ‘charitable’ donation from an American Muslim. In Germany they were met by a fellow Yemeni, Muhammad Alanssi [al-Ansi], and an FBI agent posing as a member of the ‘Black Panthers’. The ensuing conversation, which included discussions about channelling $2.5 million into the fight against America’s ‘Zionist government’ was secretly recorded. Shaikh Moayad and his assistant were then arrested and eventually extradited from Germany for trial in the US. Although the US Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzales, hailed the convictions as ‘another important step in our war on terrorism’, the case raised questions about the entrapment process and the extent to which Alanssi may have acted as an agent provocateur. Alanssi was previously employed at the US Embassy in Sana’a, where he was dismissed twice. He left Yemen under a financial cloud and moved to the US where he became involved in a string of failed business ventures and ran up large debts. He then became a paid informer of the FBI, reportedly receiving $100,000 for information about al-Qaeda’s methods of financing. Shortly before the Shaikh’s trial began, however, Alanssi fell out with the FBI, apparently in a dispute over payments. He attempted to deliver a letter to President Bush in Washington, and after a brief conversation with White House guards set himself on fire, suffering serious burns. The prosecution hoped to call him as their star witness in the case but following the White House incident decided against it. He was eventually called as a hostile witness by Moayad’s defence lawyers. Later a federal judge sentenced Moayad to the maximum prison term of 75 years.

In October, almost four years after suicide bombers blew up USS Cole in Aden harbour, killing 17 American sailors, a Yemeni court sentenced two men to death and jailed four others for their role in the attack. Of the two facing execution, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (also known as Muhammad Omar al-Harazi) was tried in his absence because he is currently held by the US at an undisclosed location. Saudi-born Nashiri – regarded as the mastermind of the attack – left Yemen a few days before the blast but was captured in the U.A.E. two years later. According to the US, he is the cousin of a suicide bomber who blew up the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. The other man facing execution, 35 year-old Jamal al-Badawi, was said to have received instructions for the bombing from Nashiri. On appeal his death sentence was commuted to 15 years in jail. Fahd al-Qusaa, who allegedly bought the inflatable dinghy used in the attack, was sentenced to 10 years. Another Yemeni, Ma’moun Masouwah, was sentenced to 8 years, and two former officials at Yemen’s Ministry of Interior, Ali Muhammad Saleh andd Murad al-Suroori, received 5 years each for forging identity papers. In another legal development in October, British authorities brought sixteen charges against Abu Hamza al-Masri, the former Imam of Finsbury Park Mosque in London – including incitement to murder. He is expected to face trial next January, and this will delay a request by Washington to extradite him to the US on charges which include conspiring to take hostages in Yemen. The American case relates to an incident in 1998 when 16 tourists were kidnapped in Abyan province and four died when Yemeni forces tried to rescue them.

It has been a difficult year for the Yemeni press, with the US-based ‘Committee to Protect Journalists’ and the French-based ‘Reporters sans frontières’ (RSF) both expressing concern about harassment of Yemeni journalists. According to RSF, during 2004 nine journalists received suspended prison sentences, two were detained, four were physically attacked and seven were summoned for questioning. Some of this resulted from critical coverage of the Houthi conflict. In September, Abd al-Karim al-Khaiwani, of the opposition newspaper Al-Shoura, was sentenced to a year in jail for incitement, insulting’ President Ali Abdullah Saleh, publishing ‘false news’, and causing ‘tribal and sectarian discrimination’. His newspaper was suspended for six months. Khaiwani was eventually released in March after receiving a presidential pardon.

President Saleh caused much surprise in July, on the 27th anniversary of his rise to power, by saying that he will not contest the presidential election scheduled for September 2006. His announcement came at the end of a speech to politicians, diplomats, government officials and tribal leaders, in which he reviewed the problems and achievements of his presidency, including the unification of north and south Yemen, the introduction of a multi-party system and the settling of all the country’s border disputes. ‘I hope that all political parties… find young leaders to compete in the elections because we have to train ourselves in the practice of peaceful succession’, he said . ‘Our country is rich with young blood who can lead the country… let us transfer power peacefully among ourselves; people are fed up with us, and we are fed up with power.’ Yemenis, particularly among the opposition parties, were generally sceptical, and some suggested that he might rescind his decision to step down or might hand over power to his thirty-five year old son, Ahmad. The latter, however, is too young to run for the presidency; Yemen’s current Constitution stipulates that candidates must be at least 40 years old. Meanwhile, a government decision to cut fuel subsidies brought rioting to the streets of Sana’a and other cities in July. In the capital, several buildings were damaged and vehicles and tyres set alight. Security forces fired into the air and used tear gas in an effort to disperse demonstrators. In some areas shops were looted, and one Yemeni newspaper showed a photograph of protesters raiding a cash machine in the city centre.

Removing subsidies from a range of basic goods is in line with an economic package that Yemen agreed with the IMF in 1995. The changes announced in July roughly doubled the price of diesel, petrol and kerosene overnight, causing knock-on rises in fares for public transport. Police said that 36 people died in various parts of the country during the two days of rioting, including several police officers. 50 people died during similar riots in 1998 when subsidy cuts brought sharp increases in the price of petrol, flour and cooking gas.

August 2005