Yemen overview, 2001-2


Brian Whitaker is Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper. He writes regularly on Yemeni affairs and is a member of the Society.

The last 10 months have witnessed the most challenging period for Yemen since the 1994 war. In the immediate aftermath of September 11 there were hints, at least from the more hawkish elements in the United States, that Yemen — along with Sudan and Somalia — could be targeted in a second wave of the ‘war against terrorism

Fortunately, these fears have not been realised. This can be attributed in large part to the careful approach adopted by Yemeni leaders, faced with conflicting pressures to crack down on supporters of Usama bin Laden and to oppose American policies regarding Afghanistan and Israel.

It was inevitable, once bin Laden’s involvement in September 11 became established, that the spotlight would turn on Yemen.

The problem dates back to the end of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union when unemployed mujahideen flocked to Yemen — one of the few countries where they could keep alive the spirit of jihad without much harassment from the authorities. According to the Yemeni authorities, more than 14,000 ‘Arab Afghans’ (as the veteran mujahideen are known) were deported during the last five years.

At the same time, smaller numbers of Yemenis drifted off to Afghanistan to support the Taliban regime and/or bin Laden. It was reported in February that more than 20 Yemeni citizens had been captured in Afghanistan by the Americans and transferred to Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where they formed the second largest national group after the Saudi prisoners.

Yemen also has a historical connection with the bin Laden family, who originally came from Hadhramaut. Their modest ancestral home briefly became a focus of media attention, much to the chagrin of the Yemeni authorities. In November, a French film-maker who attempted to interview Usama bin Laden's Yemeni father-in-law was expelled for entering the country under false pretences, on a tourist visa.

The strain that September 11 initially placed on Yemeni-American relations eased gradually, and when President Ali Abdullah Sail visited Washington in late November, Yemen was officially described as a partner rather than a target in the war against terrorism.

President Salih’s visit was reciprocated in March, when Vice-President Dick Cheney included Yemen in his Middle East tour. For security reasons, Mr Cheney did not venture beyond the terminal at Sana’a airport during his two-hour stay. Nevertheless, it was a sign of improving relations — the first trip by a high-ranking American since George Bush senior (then vice-president) visited Yemen in 1986.

In practical terms, Yemen’s anti-terrorism efforts have centred on internal security and border controls. As the war against the Taliban and al-Qa’eda progressed, the primary aim was to prevent escapees from Afghanistan taking refuge in Yemen.

The visa system was tightened and work began (with American help) on a system of computers and cameras at airports and border crossings which will provide centralised monitoring of everyone who enters or leaves the country.

The possibility of unauthorised entry, particularly along Yemen’s 1,200-mile coastline, remains a problem. To deal with this, the US is reportedly helping to set up a maritime police force and providing 15 patrol boats.

In the view of a European diplomat, security inside Yemen has improved considerably since September 11 and this has also helped to deter tribal kidnapping of foreigners. In apparent recognition of these efforts, the British Foreign Office dropped its stern travel warning, which has had a severe impact on tourism from the UK. Its current policy is to advise against independent travel to Yemen and to recommend ‘that you should only do so as part of an organised tour and if you have business contacts, family or friends in the country’.

The difficulty of making arrests in Yemen was highlighted in December when security forces, armed with a list of suspects provided by Washington, tried to arrest three of them in Marib. The suspects escaped, but at least 18 soldiers and four tribesmen died in the ensuing gun and tank battle.

Nevertheless, large numbers of suspected al-Qa’eda sympathisers inside Yemen have been rounded up and there are unconfirmed claims that more than 170 are currently detained.

Events took a farcical turn in February when the FBI issued a world-wide alert for six Yemenis, claiming they were ‘extremely dangerous and likely to carry out terrorist attacks within 24 hours’. All six, it was later discovered, were already in jail.

As in other Muslim countries, there was increased concern in Yemen about the misuse of education for spreading religious militancy. The government announced that the Islamic institutes associated with the opposition lslah party would be incorporated into the state educational system — though the move had been planned before September 11.

In November, al-Baihani school in Aden — owned by a charity — was forcibly closed. People living nearby told journalists that its classes began at 5 am after morning prayers and included exercises which resembled military training. The private al-Iman university, run by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a leader of the lslah party’s radical wing, was also temporarily closed.

For several years Yemen has been a popular place for Muslims from abroad, including western converts, to study Arabic and/or Islam. A few of these students have eventually moved on into al-Qa’eda circles — among them John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old American who studied in Yemen and was later arrested during the war in Afghanistan.

Following Lindh’s arrest, large numbers of foreign students were sent home from Yemen, mainly on technical grounds connected with visas and residency permits.

One of the hazards faced by the Yemeni government in co-operating with the ‘war on terrorism’ was the possibility of an internal backlash — especially if security measures were perceived as complying with American demands rather than addressing Yemen’s own needs.

This required a careful balancing act. Collaboration with the US, which now extends to American training of Yemeni special forces, has generally been kept at a discreet level. At the same time, Yemeni leaders have asserted their independence by espousing causes popular with the Yemeni public. Earlier this year, President Salih suspended his normal duties for a five-day ‘sit-in’ in his own office to protest at the situation in Palestine.

Even so, this policy has caused some problems, though nothing unduly serious. In October, there was a large demonstration against the bombing of Afghanistan. There have been a number of reported threats to the American embassy, including a harmless grenade attack, and several small explosions directed at people and buildings connected to Yemen’s Political Security Organisation. Responsibility for the latter was claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself ‘Sympathisers of al-Qa’eda’.

All this may sound like another grim year for Yemen but, given the magnitude of the difficulties, it might be argued that events have turned out reasonably well.

Threats to internal security have been a serious impediment to Yemen s economic development for many years, particularly in the tourism industry. Addressing the issue seriously as a result of September 11 can therefore bring practical benefits to Yemen. More effective monitoring of the coastline, for instance, may not only keep out al-Qa’eda fugitives but help local fisheries by keeping interlopers at bay.

The last year has certainly been a salutary experience and, if the current efforts are maintained, may even become a positive one. If that proves to be the case then Yemen will, for once, have something to thank bin Laden for.

July 2002