Honey and jihad

Honey and jihad

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 26 October, 2001

ABU HAMZA al-Masri, the militant imam of Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, once told a young Briton: "After Afghanistan, Yemen is the most suitable country for training mujahedin."

The young man followed his advice and ended up in a Yemeni jail, along with Abu Hamza’s son, stepson and seven others.

But Abu Hamza was not alone in regarding Yemen as a cradle of jihad. Veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union took refuge there and training camps flourished for much of the 1990s. A surfeit of weaponry, a lack of law enforcement, porous borders and false identity papers supplied by corrupt officials also played their part in a process that many regarded as serving God.

The Yemeni government blames outsiders - "Yemen itself has been suffering greatly from terrorism," Vice-President Abed Rabbu Mansur Hadi said in mid-October. To illustrate the point, Yemen has renewed its demand for Abu Hamza to be extradited from London - a call that is unlikely to be heeded.

This has not obviated a need to demonstrate, to the US in particular, that the authorities are seriously trying to combat terrorism. Dozens of the usual suspects have been rounded up, including Usama bin Laden’s father-in-law. There has also been a clamp-down on travel to Pakistan, intended to prevent Islamists from responding to calls to help defend Bin Laden and the Taliban.

This has even extended to restrictions on the movement of fishing boats. A US-imposed freeze on the assets of two Yemeni honey businesses, a confectioner and an individual associated with them has been met with widespread scepticism inside the country. The US says honey is used to smuggle cash and drugs because customs officials often find it too messy to examine properly. In mid-October two men were arrested in New York on their way to Yemen with boxes of honey containing $140,000 in cash, but they are not thought to be connected with Bin Laden.

Yemenis have also been nervously asking the Americans if they are likely to be targeted in the second phase of the "war on terrorism . The answer given is no, but the real question is whether the measures being taken by the Yemenis will prove effective or satisfy the US. If not, the Americans may offer to help - an offer that Yemen would refuse at its peril. But accepting it could be equally perilous, provoking a backlash from the public.

On 20 October, some 30,000 Yemenis, some of them armed, marched in Amran - the home patch of Islah party leader Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar - to call for "opening the way for jihad against Crusader forces". In southern Yemen, three small bombs exploded in rubbish bins.

Meanwhile, investigations continue into the bombing of USS Cole in Aden harbour last year, and the circumstantial evidence linking the attack to Bin Laden’s network is growing. The prime suspect, Muhammad Umar al-Harazi, who has still not been caught, is a cousin of the suicide bomber who blew up the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, according to the US. Yemeni sources say Harazi was also the organizer of a Bin Laden plot to blow up the US embassy in India, which was foiled last June.

The man in charge of training for the Cole attack, according to the US, was Raed Hijazi, a former Boston taxi driver, who Jordanian security officials say is a close associate of Muhammad Abu Zubayda, a member of Bin Laden’s inner circle. Hijazi is currently on trial in Jordan for involvement in Bin Laden’s alleged "millennium plot", which included targets in Jordan and the US.

The FBI says that Khaled alMidhar, a hijacker aboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 11 September had earlier been spotted on a surveillance video in Malaysia meeting a man suspected of involvement in the Cole attack. Yemeni sources go further and say that Midhar was actually in Yemen helping to prepare the attack and left the country shortly after the explosion.