The War on Terrorism in Yemen

Soon after September 11, government officials and journalists suggested that Yemen might be an appropriate target in the endless “war on terrorism” launched by the Bush administration. Unlike Iraq, Somalia, Iran and some other candidates (but like the Philippines and Georgia, which have also become stages for the terror war), Yemen had a friendly government. Although it had once been included in the State Department’s list of nations “sponsoring terrorism,” it had been removed from that list after the Gulf War, and had briefly hosted 100 U.S. troops involved in the disastrous military operation in Somalia beginning December 1992. (The troops had been withdrawn from Yemen in January 1993 following bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the hotels where they resided. Osama bin Laden had issued a fatwa against them.) During the 1994 civil war in the country, the U.S. had backed the current leadership against the “leftist” opposition. (So had anti-U.S. Muslim fundamentalist factions, whom the leadership cannot now afford to alienate.)

Yemen had received a U.S. AID mission–withdrawn, to the chagrin of the government, due to U.S. security concerns in 1996. It had, under U.S. pressure, dismantled its adherence to the secondary and tertiary Arab boycotts of Israel beginning that year, and maintained a generally friendly stance towards the U.S.. In April 2000, President Ali Abdullah Saleh (who had become head of state in 1990 after the opposition Socialist Party was banned from participation in the poll), visited President Clinton in Washington DC to strengthen what the State Department called “the close bonds between the United States and Yemen.” At that time, Saleh sought U.S. aid (only recently granted), including thirteen patrol boats worth $6.5 million, and other military assistance.

But Saleh’s government has never fully controlled all of Yemen’s territory, and in “lawless” regions, al-Qaeda forces may operate. Bin Laden’s family is of Yemeni origin, and in 1998 bin Laden even contemplated moving his operation from Afghanistan to Yemen. (Thereafter, General Anthony Zinni, U.S. military commander in the region, made the first of several trips to the capital Sana’a.) In October 2000, commandos thought to be al-Qaeda operatives rammed a small boat loaded with explosives into the USS destroyer Cole, then refueling in Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. This ranked with the bombing of the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in June 1996 (which killed 19 Americans), and the attack on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and in Dar es-Sala’am in August 1998 (which killed 224, including 12 Americans) as a major al-Qaeda action prior to September 11.

While Sana’a cooperated in the investigation of the Cole incident, U.S. authorities were not entirely satisfied with the Yemeni response. Saleh initially denied that “terrorists” had conducted the attack; later, Yemen suggested that the U.S. bore partial responsibility for it, having trained terrorists in Afghanistan in the 1980s. ABC News reported that a Yemeni security surveillance camera that might have filmed critical evidence had been pointed in the wrong direction, and that a tape turned over to the FBI authorities by Yemeni officials might have been partly erased. FBI officials complained of lack of cooperation from the Yemenis, who insisted on controlling the investigation, and for security reasons the bureau conducted its own inquiry from U.S. ships offshore. A London-based “expert on the region” who had lived for six years in Yemen told ABC: “The FBI and Scotland Yard are clever enough to know that the Yemen government has been feeding these people” responsible for the attack.

Thus the Saleh regime, while seeking U.S. aid and investment, is viewed in Washington as less than a reliable friend. But Yemen must walk a tightrope. There was and is widespread anti-U.S. sentiment in the country, formed from the union of formerly pro-Soviet South Yemen and pro-West North Yemen in 1990. On October 10, 2000, two days before the Cole attack, over 50,000 in Aden protested against U.S. support for Israel. Some of the opposition is indeed “terrorist” in the sense the State Department uses the term; the Islamic Jihad organization (based in Egypt and Palestine), linked to al-Qaeda, has operated there, and one of its offshoots, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, has attacked Westerners. Zein al-Abidine al-Mihdar, leader of the latter group, was executed in 1999 after being convicted of abducting 16 foreign tourists and killing four of them. The State Department, in a report issued in April 2000, contended that a host of other “terrorist” groups, including Hamas, al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya, and the Algerian Armed Islamic Group are officially represented or maintain a presence in Yemen. The same report noted that Yemen had for several years made efforts to tighten its security, and signed various international antiterrorist conventions, but “lax and inefficient enforcement of security procedures and the government’s inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country continued to make the country a safe haven for terrorist groups.”

Confronted after September 11 by Bush’s demand to be “for or against” the U.S. or risk association with terrorism, Saleh’s regime was placed in a quandary. On September 26, Saleh told a domestic audience that he would not let foreign troops use Yemeni territory, and warned outsiders not to interfere in the country. But pressure from the U.S. mounted; on October 3 CNN quoted a U.S. official as stating that Yemen had “one of the most significant” al-Qaeda organizational links in the world, and cited diplomatic sources as stating that “thousands of veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war,” capable of launching “uncoordinated or coordinated attacks” on U.S. interests, were living in the country. In response, Yemen noted that it had deported 5000 non-Yemeni veterans of the U.S.-subsidized anti-Soviet war since 1998–the year of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania attributed to al-Qaeda–and was cracking down on Yemenis suspected of having had al-Qaeda ties while in Afghanistan. (Presumably these efforts drew on the assistance of FBI agents, in Yemen since the Cole incident.)

Thus, in November, when Saleh met with Bush in Washington, he pledged to further crack down on al-Qaeda members operating in Yemen. In order to indicate its sincerity in fighting “terrorism,” the government sent forces to al-Hosun village December 18 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. Thereafter, as if persuaded of the incompetence of the Yemeni “anti-terror” forces, the U.S. proposed joint Yemeni-U.S. action against al-Qaeda. The U.S. announced on January 3 that it would train local forces to attack al-Qaeda-linked groups in the country. Press reports in early March stated the U.S. was preparing to send several hundred troops to Yemen to assist government in destroying al-Qaeda forces in the north. The Yemeni government announced that about 200 Americans would train local troops.

The official fiction is that the Yemenis asked for these U.S. troops. Vice President Cheney meeting with President Saleh in Yemen March 14, “indicated that in addition to being responsive to Yemen’s request for training its special forces in their counter-terrorism mission, the United States is planning to address essential military equipment needs and to increase assistance to Yemen’s Coast Guard and economy” (Yemen Times, March 18-24). 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.” He indicated that 40 experts had already completed their tasks and left the country. (Strangely, CNN only reported on May 17 the arrival of 30 U.S. troops to train Yemeni soldiers. The same day, the Yemen Times reported, “here are over 60 U.S. military experts training Yemeni special tasks forces on how to launch a crack down on terrorists.”) On April 21, as Saleh confirmed the arrival of more U.S. troops, he declared that there were no al-Qaeda training camps in Yemen, but “hidden cells here and there,” especially in the tribal areas of Mareb, Al Jawf and Shabwa. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that Yemen is receiving these troops under duress, and risking popular resentment in doing so.

To date, the U.S. has drawn up plans to install computers and cameras to monitor Yemeni airports and seaports; they will be linked to a central office in Sana’a. The U.S. has recommended that Yemen establish a marine patrol police, equipped with 250 boats with night watch systems, to be paid for by the U.K., Saudi Arabia, Germany and the Netherlands. All intelligence gathered will of course be passed along to the U.S. Heavy-handedness seems to have characterized the whole U.S. mission, the arrogance of the U.S. ambassador provoking particular opposition in the country. Agence France-Presse reported March 9 that:

Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party on Tuesday accused U.S. ambassador Edmond Hull of ‘interfering’ in domestic affairs and threatened to expel him. ‘Since he was appointed (last September), 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, a GPC mouthpiece. ‘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.’

Coming just days before Vice President Cheney’s visit (to pressure Yemen into acceptance of the planned U.S. attack on Iraq) this statement indicates the depth of antipathy towards the U.S., even at the top echelons of government. More recently, the Nasserite Unionist Party, a major opposition group with representatives in Parliament, issued a statement demanding that the government issue an official warning to Ambassador Hull, to stop his “undiplomatic behavior in Yemen.”

After General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Forces, told an Egyptian satellite channel that Saleh had offered to provide military facilities to U.S. ships, opposition parties published an open letter to the president opposing such cooperation. Saleh’s office responded that the parties should not have made such protest “without any verification”-implicitly denying Franks’ statement-and warning that such statements might incite anti-Western violence.

But that, of course, is what many would like to do. On March 15, a man threw a grenade at U.S. embassy in Sana’a. He was arrested, described as mentally ill. On April 12 a bomb was exploded near the U.S. embassy, and on April 23 a huge explosion rocked the Civil Aviation Authority building and damaged several other buildings in the capital. A group calling itself Sympathizers of al-Qaeda took responsibility, demanding the release of 173 Mujahadeen (i.e., Afghan war veterans who once worked with U.S. operatives and CIA Frankensteins like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) held prisoner by the government. They declared that if the prisoners were not released by May 12, they would attack high-ranking officials (as “agents for the U.S.”). In a statement, they advised the people living near the Political Security building, the prison holding the Mujahadeen to leave the area “until the war is over.” The Sympathizers pledged to give compensation for any damage to neighboring properties, and called upon all al-Qaeda elements in Yemen, mainly Fawaz al Rabee, Abdu Ali al Harithy and Abu Asem al Ahdal, to join them in their mission. (The Yemeni government is searching for these men.)

From mid-April to May 9, five bomb explosions occurred in Yemen, the last near the house of Prime Minister Abdulqader Bajammal in the Sufan Quarter of Sana’a.
It shattered windows of surrounding homes but otherwise did no damage. The Sympathizers issued a statement indicating that the attack was originally intended to target the nearby home of Ali Mansour Rashad, the man they accuse of torturing Mujahadeen inside the Political Security building. According to the Yemen Times, “The al-Qaeda sympathizers’ statement warned all members of the Political Security whom they described as agent[s] of Americans that their explosion operation [would] be the last one not causing bloodshed and human loses, before termination of the ultimatum date.”

Yemenis have repeatedly demonstrated their solidarity with the Palestinians, protesting, in large-scale rallies, the intensification of violence on the West Bank and Gaza strip since March 12. Since Israel and Prime Minister Sharon are universally associated throughout the Arab world with the United States, such demonstrations also feature anti-U.S. slogans and manifestations. On March 26, hundreds of thousands marched in support of Palestine in Sana’a. More recently, members of parliament have marched on the U.S. embassy; Yemen’s parliament has called for a boycott of all U.S. and Israeli goods. On April 19, 5000 protesters, led by Jarallah Omar of the Socialist party, Ali Saif Hasan from the Nasserite party, and members of the Yemeni Writers Union, marched on the U.S. embassy to demand a severance of diplomatic ties. This was broken up by police using batons and tear gas and firing into the air. On April 24 the embassy was shut down due to security concerns following more pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

So intense is official fear of further anti-U.S./anti-government actions, Yemen has cancelled plans for the Reunification Day celebration on May 22, which marks the twelfth anniversary of the merger of South and North Yemen. (Officially, the cancellation is to manifest solidarity with the Palestinian people.) Meanwhile, all shops dealing in explosives and fireworks have been shut down, and additional military forces dispatched to all governorates in the country to enhance security., an Arabic-language web directory excelling in news reportage, has been blocked by the government. The latter measure is supposedly intended to exclude websites with pornographic content, but more likely is designed to curb access to critical reporting (Yemen Observer, May 11, 2002).

Unlike the Philippines and Georgia, where U.S. training operations ostensibly targeting “terrorism” (“Operation Balikatan” and “Operation Train and Equip”) continue, Yemen is an Arab, Muslim country. In all three countries, even ranking officials have questioned the need and desirability of the U.S. presence; but in Yemen, opposition (Marxist/secular as well as Islamist) seems especially widespread. Continuing carnage in Palestine, supported by the U.S., and preparations for another imperialist attack on Iraq, make it likely that the U.S. military presence, however low-key, will generate more violent resistance and make Saleh’s position increasingly uncomfortable.

In sum: the U.S. “war on terrorism”–in Yemen and elsewhere–will not make the world a safer or freer place, for Americans or anyone else.

Gary Leupp is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Tufts University. He is also coordinator of the Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and 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 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: