Al-Qaeda and the Houthi conflict

Two Saudi al-Qaeda suspects have been killed in the fighting in northern Yemen, al-Hayat newspaper reported yesterday.

One of the dead men, Fahd Saleh Sulaiman al-Jatili, aged 27, was No 62 (out of 85) on the kingdom's most-wanted list. The name of the other man has not been disclosed but he is said to be also on the list. Al-Hayat's report is in Arabic, but the Yemen Post summarises it in English

Jatili (or Jutayli) left Saudi Arabia eight years ago. He was later arrested in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo before eventually being returned to Saudi Arabia.

The big question is what these men were doing in the midst of the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – and which side killed them.

A headline in Mareb Press (again, in Arabic) says the Yemeni army killed them – implying they were fighting for the rebels – though the report itself contains nothing to support this.

However, considering al-Qaeda's politics, it seems more likely they were among the irregular forces – Wahhabis/Salafis and tribal militias – mustered by the Yemeni government to join the battle against the Shia rebels. This is only a supposition based on probabilities, but it's worth recalling that President Salih also used jihadists to support northern forces in the 1994 war with the south.

If it is confirmed that wanted al-Qaeda suspects are indeed supporting government troops against the Houthis the implications for Salih's regime, in terms of its international relations, could be very serious indeed.

Meanwhile, another government air strike has reportedly killed many civilians. The Yemen Post, citing "independent sources", 
says "dozens" of locals in the Damaj area of Saada died in an attack on Saturday morning. At present, there are no further details. On September 16, at least 87 displaced civilians – mainly women and children – were reportedly killed in a series of air strikes on their encampment.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 September 2009.