Attack on the USS Cole

Yemen and the United States

FOR SEVERAL years, Yemen has been quietly nurturing its relations with the United States, despite opposition from some sections of public opinion.

Relations have moved a long way since 1990-91 when Yemen's attitude to the conflict with Saddam Hussein led to American aid being cut off. In 1997, during the arms inspection crisis with Iraq, Yemen kept a noticeably low profile. Later, following the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Salih wasted no time in sending condolences to President Clinton - though one of the bombing suspects carried a Yemeni passport.

In 1998, Yemen and the United States held their first joint military exercises, and the US provided help with clearing mines left behind by the 1994 civil war. There have been occasional visits to Yemen by both US ships and senior officers. Yemeni officers, in turn, have been invited to visit the US.

Comment on US-Yemeni relations: 
Yemen Times, 13 Nov 2000

There have been persistent rumours - officially denied - that the US would like to establish a military base in Yemen. Although the Yemeni government sees good relations with the US as vital to its long-term interests, it has had had to endure criticism of its policy at home - particularly from Islamists, but also from some nationalists.

In 1998, opponents of military co-operation circulated a document which claimed, among other things, that the US Marines had established a base in Aden.

The US Embassy in Sana'a said the document was a forgery containing "numerous lies". A spokesman said: "The United States does not have - and does not intend to establish - any military bases in Yemen."

However, in 1999, the US Defense Department transferred its Red Sea strategic fuel storage depot from Djbouti to Aden.

There were several reasons for the move. One was political, because the US wanted, as it put it, to "re-engage" with Yemen which in 1990 had offended the west by its ambivalent attitude towards Iraq.

General Anthony Zinni, head of US Central Command, regarded Yemen as a useful country to cultivate in case any of America’s other allies in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf region "went south" (i.e. turned against the US). In addition, the military noted that Yemen is beyond the reach of existing medium-range ballistic missiles.

There were also practical and economic factors for the move to Aden. Djibouti harbour was very cramped, and refuelling there could take up to 48 hours, compared with 4-5 hours in Aden. Aden is only about five miles off the main sea lane, which again saves time. Fuel storage charges in Aden are said to be lower than anywhere else in the region.

American involvement in Yemen was one of the grievances of the so-called Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, which kidnapped 16 mainly British tourists in southern Yemen at the end of 1998. Four of the tourists died during a rescue by Yemeni security forces, and the leader of the Islamic Army was later executed.

A group of young Muslim men from Britain had earlier been arrested on terrorism charges and were alleged to have been plotting attacks on various US and British targets in Aden. The Yemenis believed that the tourists were kidnapped in the hope of securing their release.

The men were linked to Abu Hamza al-Masri, the imam of Finsbury Park mosque in London, who runs an organisation called Supporters of Sharia. After kidnapping the tourists, the leader of the Islamic Army called Abu Hamza by satellite phone.

In an earlier incident, in December 1992, an Austrian tourist and a Yemeni hotel worker killed were in a bomb explosion at the Gold Mohur hotel, Aden. A second explosion occurred in a car park at the Aden Movenpick hotel, injuring two suspected terrorists. The culprits believed to be Afghan-trained militants objecting to the presence of US military in Aden (who were then helping with the Somali relief operation), or perhaps to the sale of alcohol and westernisation in the city's two leading hotels. Six people were later arrested but escaped from jail. One of them is reported to have been recaptured during the trawl for suspects involved in the Cole bombing.