Tight with the US

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,8 February, 2002

YEMENI investigators headed for Cuba in early February to help in the questioning of al-Qa’ida suspects. Up to 21 Yemenis are detained there, forming the second largest national group after the Saudis.

Yemen stressed that its investigators would be checking on living conditions in the camp as well as taking part in interrogations. Although the official reason for this arrangement is that it may yield more information about the bombing of USSColein Aden 18 months ago, the move shows how far Yemen’s relations with the US have improved since the early days of the "war on terrorism", when Yemen was spoken of as a possible target for an American attack.

Meanwhile, a dozen US military experts are due to arrive in the country. According to theYemen Times,their role is to help set up a maritime police force to keep unwanted visitors from Yemen’s shores. For many years Yemen has been one of the easiest countries to enter and live in illegally - which made it an ideal refuge for Islamist militants. The 1,200-mile coastline, which is largely unguarded, is only part of the problem.

The Americans will initially be looking for suitable places along the coast where patrol boats can be stationed. The US is also expected to provide 15 boats - about a tenth of what is needed to do the job effectively.

Yemen’s main airport, in San’a, is also attempting to dean up its act. Fifteen passport officers have been sacked for providing "illegal facilities" to passengers and other misdemeanours. The airport director, Colonel Ahmad Me’yad, told theYemen Observer"Other security officers and employees of various authorities at San’a airport, including political security, police, passports and customs, have also been interrogated and punished for not performing their duties properly."

The effort to deport undesirable foreigners is also gathering pace. At the end of January, Muhammad Mustafa Kamil, the 20-year-old son of militant cleric Abu Hamza alMasri, was deported to Britain. He had been released from jail in Yemen after completing a three-year sentence for terrorism offences. The youth was one of ten young men sent to Yemen by Abu Hamza in 1998, according to the authorities, to attack British and American interests in Aden.

After arriving in Yemen, the group were in contact with the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, which Yemen describes as part of the al-Qa’ida network. Yemen is still demanding the extradition of Abu Hamza - a British citizen.

So far this month, four British Muslims have been deported from Yemen, and two more are in detention. They are among 115 foreigners who have been studying or teaching at religious institutes associated with extremist politics. The foreigners have been arrested for relatively trivial immigration offences but are being questioned about links to militant groups.

Although there is evidence that some students from these institutions have drifted into al-Qa’ida circles, the colleges provide an easy target for high-profile "anti-terrorism" activity by the government.

The government says it now knows exactly where the pair are and will take them by force if necessary. But, rather than risk another military fiasco, it is allowing time for a negotiated solution.

The men have apparently offered to surrender on condition they are not handed over to the Americans - a demand that the government will find difficult to accept. At least three prominent shaykhs are involved in the mediation.