Storing up credit

Storing up credit

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,23 November, 2001

AT THE END of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, unemployed mujahideen flocked to Yemen - one of the few countries where they could keep alive the spirit of jihad without too much harassment from the authorities.

Since 1996, more than 14,000 of these "Arab Afghans" are said to have been expelled and now, as the Taliban regime collapses, Yemen is taking steps to prevent a second influx of undesirables.

Conveniently, these efforts are also helping to store up credit in Washington ahead of President Ali Abdullah Salih’s scheduled meeting with George Bush at the White House on November 27.

If all goes well, the US is expected to offer Yemen a $130 million aid package to combat both poverty and terrorism.

Among other measures, Yemen has already stopped issuing visas on arrival at Sana’a airport to American and European passport holders. In future, these visitors will have to obtain them in advance at embassies abroad.

"This decision is intended to stop infiltration of suspect elements into the country, notably from Afghanistan," a security source told the army newspaper, "26 September". A number of al-Qaeda supporters are believed to carry US or European passports - either forged or genuine.

Yemen’s "instant visa" system - originally intended to encourage western tourists - has been widely abused in the past and, although the new restriction is described as temporary, there would be benefits in making it permanent.

The authorities are understood to be still holding about 20 people from among those rounded up in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

According to the Saudi daily, al-Watan, Yemen has also extradited 21 people who crossed the border from Saudi Arabia after September 11 and took refuge with Yemeni tribes. The 21 are believed to come from south-western Saudi Arabia, which was also home to some of the suspected hijackers.

Internal security has been stepped up, too. The Yemen Times reported the visit of a Jordanian military team to help with "advanced schemes" to crack down on "terrorists and other outlaws" by monitoring the main roads.

The government has also been actively pursuing its plan, announced last May, to take over religious schools which are organised (and used as a recruiting ground) by the opposition Islah party.

On November 8, police seized the al-Baihani school in Aden and shut it down, on the grounds that it was teaching religious extremism. People living nearby said its classes began at 5 am after morning prayers and included exercises which resembled military training.

The private al-Iman university, run by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a leader of the Islah party’s radical wing, has been closed as a "precautionary" measure and the 350 foreigners who were studying there have been sent home.

Meanwhile, the Sana'a branch of al-Barakat Exchanger and Honey Stores has shut down - though this may be due to the forcible closure of its parent company abroad, rather than action by the Yemeni authorities. The US Treasury has ordered the assets of several honey companies in Yemen to be frozen, on suspicion of laundering money for al-Qaeda.

One collateral casualty of the anti-terrorism effort was Joel Soler, a French documentary film-maker, who was arrested on November 4 for trying to interview Usama bin Laden’s father-in-law in southern Yemen. He was promptly expelled on the grounds that he had entered the country on a tourist visa after being refused a journalist's visa at the Yemeni embassy in Paris.

In other developments, a 27-year-old man named as Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed, who is suspected of involvement in the USS Cole bombing in Aden last year, has been arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the United States.

The FBI has also begun a hunt for a Yemeni man known as Ramzi Omar or Ramsi Binalshibh. It is thought that he intended to take part in the September 11 hijackings but failed to gain admission into the United States.