by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 11 July, 2003
YEMENI SECURITY forces have arrested at least 22 suspects in a new crackdown on the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, a shadowy organisation linked to al-Qaeda which at various times has been said by the authorities not to exist or to have been dismantled.
The latest confrontation began on June 21 when seven Yemeni soldiers in a medical convoy were injured by gunmen as they passed through the Sarar district of Abyan, on what the official news agency described as a "humanitarian" mission.
Two days later, troops and special forces with helicopters used rockets and artillery to attack an area about four miles in diameter near Huttat, where about 80 extremists were allegedly hiding. Those holed up in the area were said to have included 10 who last April escaped from a prison where they had been held without trial beyond the legal time limit, in connection with the bombing of USS Cole in October 2000.
Details of the assault on Huttat are unclear, but it appears that six militants were killed and 13 captured, while about 60 fled. Seven soldiers were injured.
More suspects were later captured, bringing the total to 22 - though it is not known if these include the jail escapees.
According to Yemeni police, the group's leader was Ahmad abd al-Nabi, a Yemeni who had previously been in Afghanistan. He is said to have died in the assault, though according to one report his body was badly burned, making identification difficult. Several of those arrested claimed to be workers on abd al-Nabi's farm who carried weapons as a condition of their employment.
During the 1990s, Huttat was the location of a training camp run by the Islamic Army, which had connections with both 'Usama bin Laden and Abu Hamza al-Masri, a preacher at Finsbury Park mosque in London, who issued several faxed communiques on the Islamic Army's behalf.
In 1998, a group of young Muslims from Britain travelled to Yemen - apparently sent by Abu Hamza - and made contact with the Islamic Army. Several were arrested on terrorism charges, and the Islamic Army then kidnapped 16 western tourists in the hope of securing their release.
Shortly after the kidnapping, Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, the leader of the Islamic Army at the time, called Abu Hamza on a satellite phone to discuss the situation. Next day, however, four of the tourists and two kidnappers died in a shoot-out with Yemeni forces.
Abu al-Hassan was later executed and little more had been heard of the Islamic Army until recently. It is believed to be a local branch of the larger Jihad organisation which was formed around veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and operates in various parts of Yemen.
Yemen wants to put Egyptian-born Abu Hamza on trial, but there is no mechanism for extraditing him from Britain. He acquired British nationality through marriage - though the means by which he did so is under investigation and it is conceivable that he will lose his citizenship.
Last week the Charity Commission, which supervises British charities, published a critical report on its investigation into Finsbury Park mosque, where Abu Hamza has now been barred from preaching (though he still preaches in the street outside the building).
It accused Abu Hamza of mismanagement and misconduct, and making inflammatory speeches that infringed the mosque's charitable status. It also found that Abu Hamza was a signatory to a bank account in the mosque's name which trustees had not known about.
Meanwhile, Yemen has deployed more than 3,000 "well-trained" troops along its porous northern border with Saudi Arabia, the Saudi daily, Arab News, reported last week. The move is partly directed against general smuggling, though its main purpose is to prevent cross-border movement of weapons and Islamic militants.
It follows the visit of a large delegation to Yemen last month, led by Prince Sultan, the Saudi defence minister, and signals a marked change in relations since the two neighbours' border dispute was resolved three years ago.
Part of Yemen's reward for its co-operation is a $1 million Saudi donation to a military hospital in Sana'a, though Yemen is also pressing to increase employment opportunities for its citizens in the kingdom.