Yemen wages war on 'terror' bikes

In an effort to "instil discipline in the streets", Yemen's interior ministry has embarked on a controversial – and probably ill-fated – battle against unlicensed motorcycles, threatening to confiscate any that are used illegally. In the first week after the ban was introduced at the beginning of this month 507 unlicensed bikeswere seized in the capital, Sana'a.

An previous attempt to impose the ban in September was postponed because of protests and a lack of facilities for registration.

Motorcycles are an increasingly popular mode of transport in Yemen and the number of bikes has more than doubled from 100,000 in 2010 to 250,000 today, according to police estimates. 

Countless poor Yemenis eke out a living by using their bikes to carry goods or pillion passengers and others need them to get to work. Bikes are also thought to be less vulnerable to drone strikesthan cars.

Many of the have been smuggled into the country without paying customs duty, which is why they are unregistered. According to one rider, registration including the unpaid customs duty costs 40,000-50,000 riyals ($185-$230) – money that most can ill-afford – and losing their bikes will deprive them of their income.

The government's case is partly one of road safety: 200 Yemenis are said to have been killed in motorcycle accidents so far this year. But there is also another aspect to it.

Vehicles without licence plates are difficult to track, making unlicensed bikes a favoured means of transport for those who want to elude the authorities. Over the last few years, about 20 government officials have been assassinated in drive-by shootingsinvolving motorbikes which are usually blamed on al-Qaeda.

According to al-Arabiya, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda recently advised its supporters – especially those travelling in Hadramout, Abyan and Shabwa – to use motorcycles rather than cars, since it is easier to avoid being monitored or arrested. It also recommended travelling "under hazy weather conditions" to reduce the risk of being targeted by drones.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 November 2012