Surge in violence
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 3 September, 1999
WITH LESS than a month to go before Yemen's first direct presidential election, the country has again been hit by a wave of violent incidents. In the early hours of August 28, a massive explosion totally destroyed the capital's largest supermarket, killing at least two people and causing damage over a quarter-mile radius. Shortly before the Sana'a blast smaller explosions occurred in the southern cities of Aden and Zinjibar.
Predictably the Islamic Army - through its London-based mouthpiece, Abu Hamza al-Masri - claimed responsibility for all three incidents. Just as predictably, the government denied it.
Meanwhile, a French couple, kidnapped by the Jabr tribe while returning from Marib on August 21, were still being held as MEI went to press. Reports said they had been moved to a mountainous area where security forces could not reach them.
The government has reacted by announcing a ban on weapons in the main cities and provinces, which covers both licensed and unlicensed guns. Previous attempts to disarm the country - where guns outnumber people by around three to one - have met with little success. The ineffectiveness of state security, coupled with growing banditry and the existence of blood feuds, makes many Yemenis reluctant to place their trust in the hands of the police.
The weapons ban seems to have been prompted mainly by an incident in the old market of Sana'a on August 4, when a man set off a grenade then opened fire, killing six people and wounding more than 40 (see MEI 606). The cause is said to have been a dispute over the price of a watch, though the Islamic Army also claimed responsibility for the attack.
Recognising that it can achieve publicity without doing very much, the Islamic Army appears to have adopted the tactic of claiming that any untoward incidents in Yemen are a victory for its mujahideen. So far, there is no evidence - apart from Abu Hamza's statements - that it had any involvement in the supermarket bombing. In an area of the city where there are many buildings which might be considered politically significant, it is difficult to see why the Islamic Army would choose to attack a shop. It is also unlikely that the Islamic Army possesses explosives in the quantity that was used or, even if it did, that it would use them all on such a strange target.
The most plausible theory so far is that the attack was not political, but the result of a business feud. If this were substantiated it would, in some ways, be more alarming than a politically-motivated attack, indicating a more deep-seated malaise.
It would raise questions about why some Yemenis resort to violence to settle business or property disputes rather than going to court - probably through a lack of confidence in the judicial system. It would highlight the availability of explosives to anyone with enough money and the right connections, not just terrorist groups. It would also cast doubt on the wisdom of doing business in Yemen - and that, possibly, may prove more damaging to the country in the eyes of foreign investors than anything the Islamic Army is capable of doing.