Yemen and Osama bin Laden


August, 1998

REVERBERATIONS of the bin Laden affair have now reached Yemen. On August 23 the government denied a report that it had harboured the militant millionaire after he was driven out Sudan in 1996. The denial is entirely plausible, since bin Laden is wanted for arrest in Yemen, no less than in the United States.

On the same day, the group calling itself the "Islamic Army of Aden" sent a statement to Agence France Presse declaring "total war" on American interests in Yemen. Announcing its support for Osama bin Laden, the group said it intended to destroy US property and bases on the southern island of Socotra, in Aden and Hodeida.

The group is probably the one previously known as the "Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan", which contains salafi and Islamic Jihad elements. Earlier this year they set up a training camp in the mountains at Hatat, 35 km north of Zinjibar (Abyan province), with the help of instructors from various countries, according to the Socialist Party newspaper, al-Thawri. In May, Yemeni police and troops used heavy artillery and helicopter gunships to attack the camp after complaints from tribal and community leaders in Yafa'. At the time the camp was described as "almost impregnable" and the results of the security forces’ efforts are unknown.

In Kenya, one of three arrested suspects has been identified by the authorities as Khalid Saleem (pictured), a Yemeni. The others are a Palestinian from Jordan and a Lebanese. The three are accused of photographing the American embassy in Nairobi four days before the explosion in order to facilitate the attack.

According to al-Ayyam newspaper (26.8.98) Yemen has asked Kenya for more details about Saleem and his passport. The Yemeni government is understood to be disputing his nationality.

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Saleem was later flown to New York, where he has been charged with murder, conspiracy to murder, and use of weapons of mass destruction. American news sources said on August 27 he had admitted throwing a grenade at a guard outside the embassy on the day of the attack, and that he had regarded it as "a martyrdom operation, which he did not expect to survive."

Reports said he had told the FBI he had been trained in explosives, hijacking and kidnapping in Afghanistan, including some camps linked to Osama bin Laden. He had also attended news conferences with bin Laden.

Saleem was treated at a hospital in Kenya for injuries received during the attack and, according to the American sources, had hidden in the hospital two keys fitting a lock on the vehicle that carried the bomb, along with three bullets that fitted a gun he had left behind in the vehicle.

It has also been reported that three Yemenis were among those killed in the American attack on "bin Laden's training camp" in Afghanistan (al-Ayyam, 20.8.98).

BETWEEN 1992 and 1994 Yemen experienced a wave of bombings and political killings directed mainly, though by no means exclusively, against the Yemen Socialist Party which, along with the General People’s Congress, was a partner in Yemen’s post-unification government. The YSP claimed that 150 of its members were assassinated during the first four years of unity. This was a crucial factor leading to the breakdown of relations with the GPC and, in 1994, to war between northern and southern forces.

Various theories have been put forward to explain these attacks. Probably they were not the work of any single group or individual, but there is no doubt that veterans of the Afghan war - almost certainly funded by bin Laden - played a major part.

The "Arab Afghans" (as they became known) were Muslim volunteers who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviet withdrawal left many of these volunteer fighters at a loose end but still filled with a spirit of jihad which often made them unwelcome when they tried to return to their home countries. In some ways they were like the American veterans after Vietnam – deprived of adrenaline and unable to adjust to a quiet life. But unlike the Vietnam veterans, their efforts had not been futile. They had defeated a superpower and were flushed with success. Many - including bin Laden himself - told of narrow escapes from death which led them to believe that God had preserved them for a purpose.

In Yemen, under the name "Jihad", the Arab Afghans formed a loose alliance with various southern Yemenis who harboured grievances against the YSP - for example those whose land had been confiscated by the former Marxist regime.

Little was known about Jihad at the time, and initially it was thought to have been responsible for no more than a handful of attacks, most notable among them the Aden hotel bombings of 1992. Since the 1994 war, however, the balance of opinion has changed and some government sources go so far as to blame Jihad for most of the terrorist incidents during 1992-94.

Two prominent figures have been named in this connection. The first is Osama bin Laden, who allegedly provided the group with funds and whose extradition from Sudan was sought by Yemen in 1993. His family came originally from Aden but a few of them moved north to Saudi Arabia, where they prospered and were joined by the rest of the family following British withdrawal from Aden and the Marxist take-over. Today there are about 50 members of the family – Saudi citizens – with interests mainly in the construction industry. They are considered the wealthiest non-royal family in the kingdom.

During the Afghan war of the late 1980s, Osama – in common with many other Saudi businessmen – saw a religious duty to support the Islamic rebels financially against Moscow’s puppet regime. He could afford to be more generous than most, and he also became more deeply involved than most. Not only did he pay for weapons and what, by his own account, were thousands of Muslim volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa to join the mujahideen, he went there himself and took part in the fighting. Using the resources of his construction business, he blasted new guerrilla trails across the mountains and tunnelled into the rock to create underground hospitals and arms dumps.

Meanwhile Osama’s relations with the Saudi authorities had become strained and in 1989 they confiscated his passport. When it was returned two years later he moved to Sudan where he founded the Bin Laden Company of Khartoum, specialising in construction and the export of sesame seeds. He was also joined there by many veterans of the Afghan war.

Although not convicted of any crime, he was named by Egyptian, Algerian and Jordanian (as well as Yemeni) authorities as a source of funds for bombing and assassination campaigns. In the United States, he was listed as an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. In 1994 he was formally disowned by his Saudi relatives and stripped of his Saudi citizenship for "irresponsible activities" which had harmed the kingdom’s international relations. With the resources, both financial and human, to mount attacks in the name of Islam almost anywhere in the world, Osama and his associates have directed their efforts not only against unbelievers but against other Muslims who were deemed to have strayed from the True Path.

In Jordan in 1994 he was named in court as having funded a plot to assassinate politicians and bomb cinemas, night clubs, video shops and liquor outlets. The 25 accused included bin Laden's son-in-law, Muhammad Khalifa, who was tried in his absence. Khalifa has business interests in the Philippines, where the authorities have linked him to the Abu Sayyaf ("Father of the Executioner") group which attacked Christians and also, allegedly, plotted to kill the Pope and blow up American airliners over the Pacific.

According to the claims of intelligence services, Osama and his associates have funded armed Islamic struggles in such countries as far apart as Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, the Netherlands, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Yemen.

THE SECOND important figure in Yemeni terrorism during the early 1990s – though a very different character – was Tariq Bin Nasir Bin Abdullah al-Fadli, a sheikh from a prominent southern Yemeni family. Before the Marxist take-over they controlled one of the big cotton plantations outside Aden, a huge share of all southern exports passed through the family’s businesses. Perhaps more importantly still, they also controlled the water supply. Very soon after the establishment of Marxist rule the Fadlis moved to Saudi Arabia. Following unification, however, Tariq al-Fadli (an heir of the sultan who had been deposed from Abyan a quarter of a century earlier) returned to Yemen to claim his inheritance.

Sheikh Tariq gathered around himself a number of Afghan war veterans, members of his own tribe and religious opponents of the YSP. He was said, at one point, to be seeking 12,000 "heroes" to help him "save Muslims in Bosnia, wage war on the authorities and bring down the regime which he considered outside Islam, intimate with unbelievers." Whatever the motives of his helpers and backers, it seems that Fadli had given his campaign a religious tinge merely to win support in pursuit of a far more personal and mundane goal: to take revenge on those who had dispossessed his family and to obtain restitution of their property.

In the aftermath of the Aden hotel bombings at the end of 1992, hundreds of people were arrested and several caches of weapons discovered. (The southern authorities, who were still controlled by the YSP, were generally more vigorous in their response to terrorism than their northern counterparts – though often no more successful in catching the culprits.) The trail pointed to a group of "Afghans" led by Sheikh Tariq, who were eventually besieged at his home in the Maraqasha mountains, 20 km from coast of Abyan. Despite sending their Third Armoured Brigade to arrest the sheikh, southern authorities found themselves powerless to act. A military spokesman explained: "The forces could not reach the sheikh’s stronghold which is protected by a large guard in a village in a chain of rugged mountains. We don’t want to use warplanes because that could injure the citizens in villages which are geographically integral with the sheikh’s stronghold." The authorities then had to content themselves with sealing off all possible escape routes and urging the Maraqasha tribe to withdraw its confidence from the sheikh.

By this stage Fadli was presenting himself as a supporter of the Yemeni Islah party and a victim of southern intrigue. He appealed directly to the party leader, Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, for a guarantee of safe conduct to Sana’a. Shaykh Abdullah, who is Speaker of the Yemeni parliament, responded initially with a sharp rebuff, saying in a letter to Fadli: "We do not protect criminals," though in fact the appeal placed him in a difficult position. The affairs of Abyan were outside Sheikh Abdullah’s tribal purview and the Fadli affair was not strictly a tribal matter. On the other hand, it might be politically unwise for Islah to refuse to deal with an important local opponent of the YSP.

By one means or another, however, Fadli did escape the siege and arrived at Sheikh Abdullah’s house in Sana’a, accompanied by a delegation of tribal leaders from Abyan and guarded by a northern army unit, with an appointment to meet the president next day. The official account told a different story: that Fadli had peacefully surrendered to the authorities and had been reported to the public prosecutor for questioning in connection with the attempted assassination of Ali Salih Abbad Muqbil (a member of the YSP and secretary of the party’s organisation in Abyan), plus various bombings in Aden. In fact, Fadli was never imprisoned, though he spent some time at Sheikh Abdullah’s house. During the war of 1994 he fought on the president’s side and later emerged as the leading sheikh of the south. He appeared to have severed all links with Jama’at al-Jihad and urged his erstwhile followers to get regular jobs and work in the system. A post-war interview about his political allegiance went as follows:

Q. Are you thinking of joining one of the parties?

A. I feel close to the two biggest parties in the country, the GPC and Islah, and I think they’re both good.

Q. But which one will you join?

A. (smiling) There’s no difference. Either of them. Both of them are fine, God willing.

Despite the religious connotations of the name "Jihad", it is still unclear what the organisation’s primary was aim or, indeed, whether it had one. At one level Jihad could be regarded as part of a world-wide Islamic struggle with a marked anti-Soviet emphasis which found its Yemeni parallel in waging war on the YSP. But as far as some of its supporters were concerned, that merely provided a moral cloak for what were essentially parochial interests and personal grievances. Any or all of its diverse elements may well have considered themselves the "real" Jihad, each trying to make use of the others through a tactical alliance.

The confusion of purposes is nowhere more striking than in the case of the Aden hotel bombings, which were assumed to be connected with use of the hotels by the American military during operations in Somalia. That would seem to imply an attack on the spread of western culture and values in Yemen, but some of those involved also had links to a much earlier terrorist campaign in south Yemen which was organised and funded by the American Central Intelligence Agency, with some assistance from Britain and Saudi Arabia. The plot, which began in 1979, with the intention of weakening the PDRY government, involved recruiting Yemeni saboteurs. About a dozen of them were captured trying to blow up a bridge, tortured, and later executed. It is suggested that the 1992 hotel bombings were not so much directed against the United States as against the YSP, partly as a reprisal by relatives of those executed.

BEFORE unification in 1990, YSP-controlled southern Yemen was on the American blacklist of states supporting terrorism. Between 1977 and 1979, members of the Red Army Fraction had took refuge in southern Yemen to escape the German authorities and underwent weapons training there at a Palestinian camp. In addition, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez ("Carlos the Jackal") travelled frequently between 1978 and 1986 using a South Yemen diplomatic passport. By coincidence, there was a period shortly before Carlos’s arrest when both he and bin Laden lived in Khartoum - though there is no evidence they ever met.

In recent years, Yemen has generally co-operated with other countries in trying to combat terrorism, though with limited success. Efforts to clamp down internally usually result in the authorities being accused of anti-democratic behaviour. Several factors make Yemen an attractive haven for terrorists. Its land and sea borders are virtually impossible to guard; government presence in many parts of the country is minimal; the rugged, often sparsely-populated terrain makes it easy to train guerrillas or construct well-defended hideouts; and the country’s religious diversity means that most varieties of Islamic militant can find someone, somewhere, to shelter them.

by Brian Whitaker