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Eyes on Yemen


The Christmas-day airline bombing attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is generating renewed attention to Yemen as a base of international terrorism. Even if the young man’s so far uncorroborated story about visiting Yemen and obtaining explosive chemicals turns out to be fantasy, al-Qaeda in Yemen and the Sana’a government’s response to it (including air strikes on “al-Qaeda strongholds” December 17 and 24, supposedly killing 60 militants) are now front page news.

Yemen is depicted by the New York Times as “an unstable state with multiple security challenges and an uncertain commitment to battle extremists who see their main enemies in the West” causing “trepidation” to U.S. officials. According to Middle East News Yemen’s national security chief Mohamed al-Anisi has stated that his forces were cooperating with Washington on attacks against alleged al-Qaeda camps in the south of the country. (A secessionist movement there, unrelated to al-Qaeda, particularly limits the power of the state.)

The most recent strike in Abyan province was intended, among other things, to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Malik Hasan and praised him afterwards on his website. But friends and relatives say al-Awlaki, whom U.S. officials state is a ranking al-Qaeda operative, is alive and well.
“It is thought that the airstrike also killed Naser Abdel-Karim al-Wahishi, the leader of al-Qaeda’s operations in Saudi Arabia,” according to the Times Online. It also seems to have killed some children, producing a large rally at which al-Qaeda members spoke openly. This al-Jazeera news clip shows the scene.

The Times reports that while “Yemen has always been a breeding ground for anti-western sentiment…a few years ago a grouping of hardline Muslim insurgents in Yemen, said to be responsible for the attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and the kidnap and deaths of western tourists two years earlier, appeared to have burnt itself out after a government crackdown. However, earlier this year a group calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged in Yemen. It combined jihadists from Saudi Arabia with homegrown activists and has been responsible for, or has influenced, multiple attacks in the Middle East and further afield.”

This suggests that Yemeni government actions taken at the behest of the U.S. have produced an al-Qaeda that wasn’t there before. There’s nothing like aerial bombing or missile strikes to produce radical hatred and anger, on which al-Qaeda thrives.

Al-Qaeda is as much a concept as an organization and seems designed to encourage copy-cat organizations, like the “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” once headed by the mysterious Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and perhaps the defunct Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdestan. They don’t need to have contact with a central headquarters, Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda number two leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Bin Laden has long since realized that by striking the U.S. in 2001 he unleashed a U.S. response entirely in keeping with the country’s history of violence and racism, likely to draw more Muslim resentment, weaken U.S. security and validate his project among millions of people.

We all know that the attack on Iraq based on lies not only elicited global outrage (not just among Muslims) but created al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda. It made al-Zarqawi, who had actually had differences with al-Qaeda, jump on board and proclaim himself at the service of bin Laden. Such news must have come as a deep pleasure to the fugitive leader far away in his cave. While the U.S. has been able to drive a wedge between the Sunni militants opposing it and al-Qaeda, by exploiting popular resentment at the latter’s heavy-handed puritanism and buying off the former, it is embroiled in an unpopular war that has killed off  4371 soldiers.

It is enmeshed in a second unpopular war now more punishing than the first. Afghanistan has been a brilliant success story for bin Laden. His allies the Taliban are resurgent, claiming to control 80% of the country, and their spin-off Tehreek al-Islam in Pakistan is producing headaches for the secular state.

In that context AQAP has appeared to challenge the Yemeni regime, exploit ethnic divisions in the country, provoke bloody U.S. reaction that will in turn provoke the anger seen in the al-Jezeera video. The cycle of violence is the whole point: use the Americans’ proclivity for force to split the world into Muslims on the one hand and pro-U.S. forces on the other. This is the al-Qaeda strategy for the revival of the Caliphate and destruction of the nation responsible for so much Muslim suffering.

(As many have observed, the anger could be diminished by reduced support for Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land, but Obama has shown how little stomach he has for a public quarrel with the Israelis.)

Consider the post-9/11 history of U.S. relations with Yemen.  President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ordered to be “for us or against us” complied with a U.S. demand and sent government sent forces to al-Hosun village December 18, 2001 to attempt the capture of suspected al-Qaeda member Mohammad Hamdi al-Ahdal and twenty others. The effort was a disaster; 18 government troops were killed by local forces, and four villagers were killed, but no al-Qaeda forces were captured or eliminated.

The U.S. then demanded that Yemen accept 200 U.S. trainers for the Yemeni Army, whose deployment was announced January 3, 2002. Dick Cheney after meeting Saleh in March stated that they were going in response to a request from Yemen’s government. But on April 11 Saleh told al-Jazeera: “As for the American anti-terror security experts and technical equipment, it is not we who requested them. It is the U.S. government that said ‘prove your genuineness and let the experts in’ so we let them in.”

Meanwhile the U.S. ambassador was acting like a colonial administrator, making more demands. Just days before Cheney’s talk with Saleh the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) accused U.S. ambassador Edmond Hull of “interfering” in domestic affairs and threatened to expel him. “Since he was appointed (September 2001), ambassador Edmond Hull has behaved like a high commissioner, not like a diplomat in a country which is opposed to any form of interference” by a foreign state, said the Al-Mithaq weekly.

“Edmund Hull adopts a very haughty behaviour, far-removed from his diplomatic duties, when he speaks to certain Yemeni officials,” the newspaper added. Al-Mithaq urged Hull to “respect Yemen in order not to become persona non grata.”

He might have added, and in order not to become a recruiter for al-Qaeda. A group called the “Sympathizers of Al-Qaeda” popped up, seemingly spontaneously in April 2002 and began to carry out its bombing attacks that had abated a few years ago. But al-Qaeda in a certain form is back with a vengeance. Many of its militants are from Saudi Arabia and there are reports of Central Asians being sent to Yemen, but they have to work with local sympathizers. What creates more sympathizers than killing children with missiles?

Eight years after Bush-Cheney demanded and received Yemeni cooperation in the “War on Terror” Yemen and neighboring Somalia are becoming the hub of al-Qaeda. Something’s not working.

Or rather, things are working pretty fine for bin Laden and his cause.


Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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