“The unluckiest man is he who rides the lion or rules Yemen,” goes the Yemeni proverb.
That may have been the case before Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power 27 years ago, but today fortune smiles broadly on the Yemeni president (apparently president for life). Abdullah Saleh is both an ally of the U.S. and Osama bin Laden. He is considered a pro-Western democrat while simultaneously providing refuge for terrorists.
But then one might also make the case that al Qaeda actually rules Yemen.
Unlike their less fortunate brothers hiding in the musty caves of southern Afghanistan, senior al Qaeda officials in Yemen function freely and with impunity. A Saudi newspaper recently quoted a Yemeni ambassador charging that al Qaeda “has infiltrated the higher ranks of the Yemeni army.” Ahmad Abdullah al-Hasani — an ambassador and former naval commander — made the claim two weeks after applying for political asylum in the U.K. Mr. Al-Hasani alleges that President’s Saleh’s half brother, the army commander Ali al-Muhsin al-Ahmar, has established terrorist training camps in Yemen, and was a major player in the 1998 kidnapping of 16 western tourists. (Twelve Britons, two Americans and two Australians were abducted while touring the town of Mudiah, despite having a police escort. During a shoot-out between the al Qaeda kidnappers and Yemeni security forces three Britons and an Australian were killed.)
While providing lip service to the U.S., the Yemeni government has been busy freeing 113 al Qaeda members — including at least five involved in the 2000 USS Cole bombing — after the terrorists signed pledges to refrain from future terrorist acts.
Not that these pledges are worth the goatskin they are printed on. It was, after all, no less an authority than the prophet Mohammed who said, “War is deceit.” And anyone with an ounce of sense knows a terrorist’s word not to kill people is about as good as Bill Clinton’s promise to keep his pants on in a sorority house.
IN JANUARY FOX NEWS reported that President Saleh planned to release more than 1,800 prisoners, including al Qaeda suspects, during Ramadan. Many of those not granted amnesty have managed to escape. In 2003, no fewer than ten USS Cole bombing suspects escaped from Yemeni prisons. Curiously the story made front-page news in a country that never reports prison escapes (unless it is in its interest to do so), notes Yemen-expert Jane Novak.
The Yemeni government continually boasts that there haven’t been any terrorist attacks on its soil since October 2002. One possible explanation for this appeared in February 2004 in the Yemeni opposition newspaper Al Sahwanet. According to the report, Osama bin Laden offered a deal to President Abdullah Saleh to “end attacks against Western interests in Yemen in exchange for allowing insurgents freedom of movement.” (The Saleh government reportedly rejected the offer.)
Though one of the world’s poorest countries, Yemenis seem able to come up with plenty of cash when it comes to financing terror. The Council of Foreign Relations suspects numerous Yemeni corporations — in particular those involved in the lucrative honey trade — of funding bin Laden’s terrorist network. And despite a UN Security Council Sanctions Committee order to freeze 144 terrorist-affiliated accounts, only one bank account has been frozen, Novak says.
Besides al Qaeda, Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have opened shop in Yemen; terror groups from Algeria, Egypt, and Libya also call Yemen home. Shortly after the collapse of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, al Qaeda members found refuge in and around Hadramawt, the bin Laden ancestral home. Islamic militants, in fact, have a saying: “In times of crisis, go to Yemen; run to Yemen.”
When not welcoming terrorists, the Gulf state is no less busy exporting them. By one estimate half of al Qaeda’s members come from Yemen. Only Saudi Arabia had more soldiers in the Internationalist Islamist Brigade that fought the Red Army and later formed the core of al Qaeda. Not surprisingly, Yemeni prisoners make up one of the largest national contingents of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
It has also been reported that Saddam Hussein’s former army officers have established Ba’athist training camps in Yemen to train Iraqi insurgents. In 2004, Radio Free Europe noted the recruitment of many Iraqi generals into the Yemeni military. These same generals are now urging on the Yemeni security forces in their ethnic cleansing campaigns against the northern Shi’ites. While accusations of U.S. torture of Yemeni and other terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay abound, not one word about the persecution of the Shi’ite Muslims appears on the websites of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Jane Novak, apparently the only person in the world concerned about Yemen’s ethnic cleansing campaign, quotes the Chief of the Yemeni Supreme Shi’ite Council saying, (Iraqi) military men are advising President Saleh to “kill Shi’ites in the country as did Saddam in Iraq.”
THE AL QAEDA-YEMEN PARTNERSHIP should come as no surprise. Besides bin Laden’s ancestral ties, Yemen has played a prominent role in numerous al Qaeda attacks. Two years after the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 (17 U.S. sailors killed, 39 injured), the French tanker Limburg was attacked. (Al-Hasani, a navy commander during the USS Cole bombing, claims that several of those who carried out the attack are now Yemeni army officers. This seems to corroborate recent testimony alleging that Yemen’s former Interior Minister Hussein Arab helped al Qaeda pass through security checkpoints at the time of the Cole bombing.) In July 2002 an accidental explosion killed two al Qaeda terrorists and led to the seizure of 650 lbs. of plastic explosives in a San’a warehouse. That same year three American missionaries were murdered in a southern Yemeni village.
Despite San’a’s double-dealing, the U.S. has managed to kill or capture a few al Qaeda operatives in the country. In November 2002 a CIA unmanned Predator aircraft killed six members of the Abu Ali al-Harthi Brigades, the military wing of al Qaeda in Yemen, including their leader Ali Qaid Sunian al-Harthi. The group has since vowed to avenge al-Harthi’s killing, and has warned of an “impending major strike in America.”
It is increasingly hard to get a clear picture of what is going on in Yemen, and the waters are only getting muddier. The San’a government continues to deny that there is such a thing as a Yemeni branch of al Qaeda. In 2003, an al Qaeda spokesman praised President Abdullah Saleh as the only Arab leader not beholden to the West. Months later al Qaeda called Yemen the second most cooperative partner (after Pakistan) in the U.S.-led war against Islam. Don’t expect much clarification from the native press. In April 2003, Nabil al-Kumaim, a correspondent for a Qatar newspaper, was arrested for just mentioning the presence of al Qaeda in Yemen. Last year three journalists were convicted of writing articles critical of the Saudi government. Indeed, the San’a government recently proposed the death penalty for journalists. Don’t expect any big changes either. With al Qaeda and U.S. support, President Saleh’s re-election in 2006 seems a foregone conclusion.
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