Only Fools Rush Into Yemen

Protestors are walking confidently down a street a street in the southern Yemeni port of Aden when there is a rattle of gunfire as the security services shoot into the crowd and people run panic-stricken seeking cover. A man in a check shirt is left lying face down in the dust in the empty street, a stream of blood flowing from a bullet wound in his head.

In northern Yemen government tanks and artillery pound the mountains as they try to dislodge Shia rebels holding positions among the mountain crags. Plumes of white smoke rise from exploding shells. Tribesmen not in uniform fighting on the government side sit behind their heavy machine guns and spray the hillsides with fire. A few miles away on a dusty piece of flat ground thousands of refugees driven from their homes by the war cower in small over-crowded tents.

Nobody paid much attention in the West to violent incidents like these in Yemen last year, though both of those described above were recorded on film. The mounting crisis in the country only attracted notice when a Nigerian student is revealed to have been “trained” in Yemen by al-Qa’ida to detonate explosives in his underpants on plane heading for Detroit. But this botched attack has led to the US and Britain starting to become entangled in one of the more violent countries in the world. The problems of Yemen are social, economic and political, and stretch back to the civil war in Yemen in the 1960s, but Gordon Brown believes solutions can be found by holding  a one day summit on Yemen to “tackle extremism.”

Al-Qa’ida in Yemen is small, its active members numbering only 200-300 lightly armed militants in a country of 22 million people who are estimated to own no less than 60 million weapons. Al-Qa’ida has room to operate because central government authority barely extends outside the cities and because it can ally itself with the many opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in office since the 1970s.

The power of al-Qa’ida is not its military expertise or sinister training camps in the mountains of Yemen. Its strength is rather its ability to lure the US and Britain into commitments in dangerous countries like Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, where the state is weak and its rule contested.  It can do this because in the wake of 9/11 the US instinctively over-reacts to the most amateur and unsuccessful attack on the homeland.

Al-Qa’ida has always had some activists in Yemen. In 2000 they rammed The USS Cole in Aden port with a boat packed with explosives and ripped a hole in its hull, killing 17 American sailors. The Yemeni government made a secret truce with the group under whose term it would not be  pursued if it carried out no more attacks. In 2006 al Qa’ida began to reorganize when 23 of its militants escaped from Sanaa jail. As al-Qa’ida members came under greater pressure in Saudi Arabia some fled to Yemen and set up a joint Saudi-Yemeni movement, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)

It is easy to see why AQAP finds Yemen an hospitable place to be. It is not a country where the state expects to have a monopoly of violence or authority. Long before 9/11 I used to be intrigued by the Yemeni authorities’ attitude to personal weapons as exemplified by security measures at Sanaa airport. These were very strict with all luggage X-rayed before it was even allowed into the airport building and X-rayed again at each stage of the suitcase’s journey to the plane. Passengers were given frequent body searches until they reached the departure lounge. This, as in most airports, had many shops selling local handicrafts and curios to travellers. The difference in Sanaa airport was that many of these items turned out to be swords and long curved knives. Discovering to their horror that many of passengers were carrying such weapons western airlines had to get their own flight crews to ask Yemenis, as they boarded the plane, if they were armed. Yemenis found it a strange question but dutifully handed over their daggers to be placed in plastic bags in the hold of the aircraft.

The US and Britain are about to increase their support for a government which is highly unpopular and engaged in a series of actual or potential civil wars. The heaviest fighting so far has been with the Zaydi Shia insurgents just south of the border with Saudi Arabia. They contest that they fighting discrimination and are responding to President Saleh’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and its extreme Sunni Wahhabism. President Saleh, for his part, has been portraying the Shia rebels as pawns of Iran, though his government has produced no evidence for this.

The dilemma for the US and Britain is that as they become more openly supportive of the Yemeni government they will be targeted as its sponsor by its many enemies. The south of the country, independent until 1990 and defeated in a civil war in 1994, is seething with rebellion. Government forces shoot at protestors. There have been many shootings, arrests and torture is endemic. “They can make a zebra say it is a gazelle,” is a chilling Yemeni saying of the government’s interrogation methods.

Southern newspapers have been shut down including al-Ayyam, which is the most widely read. Hisham Bashraheel, its 66-year-old editor, was arrested last Wednesday at his newspaper office in the Crater district of Aden after a protest against its closure last May when the paper was accused of supporting separatism. Some 30 protestors and 20 guards had fought a battle with the police in which one policeman and one guard were killed. They later gave themselves up.

I met Mr Bashraheel in the cluttered office of al-Ayyam some years ago when he was already engaged in daily skirmishes with the authorities. Sitting on a chair in his office was a man called Abdul Hakim Mahyub, with a long scar down the side of his face, to whom Mr Bashraheel introduced me. He said Mr Mahyub’s story of how he came by the scar explained a lot about current tensions between north and south in Yemen.

Mr Mahyub said he was a teacher in Aden and several weeks earlier he had an argument with a man laying pipes outside his school. As is common in Yemen the pipe-layer had a knife in his belt. In the course of the argument he drew it and stabbed Mr Mahyub in the face, cutting through his cheek and into his tongue. His speech was affected and he found it difficult to do his job teaching, but the reason he had come to al-Ayyam to complain was that he had just heard that the man who stabbed him, who came from Marib in northern Yemen, had been released by an official from the same province.

Mr Bashraheel said that favouritism towards northerners was becoming very common but for publishing Mr Mahyub’s story he risked being accused of  “separatism” and stirring up hostility between north and south.

The US and Britain will face a similar difficulty in Yemen as they already do in Afghanistan. They will be supporting an unpopular and corrupt government. It is not that al-Qa’ida is very strong but that it will be swimming in sympathetic waters because the government is very weak.

The government itself can see the danger being labelled as an American pawn if it is too openly welcoming to foreign military aid. “Any intervention or direct military action by the United States could strengthen the al-Qa’ida network not weaken it,” said the deputy prime minister for defense and security affairs Rasheed al-Aleemi last week. The government would have liked to take all the aid it could get but without telling anybody about it.

All this sounds very like Afghanistan. And there is a further way in which the two countries resemble each other. Just as Pakistan believes it is crucially affected by what happens in Afghanistan so Saudi Arabia regards the future of Yemen as a vital interest. Saudi Arabia is by far the most important foreign power in Yemen, providing $2 billion in budget support, but its interest has always been in a weak government in Sanaa and one over which it can exercise some control.

The  only way that the US and Britain could entirely squeeze out al-Qa’ida from Yemen is by strengthening its armed forces to the point at which the central government could take over parts of the country it has not ruled for decades. But this would provoke tribes and communities which exist in a state of semi-independence from the state. As in Afghanistan foreign intervention in Yemen soon begins to create a counter-reaction of which al-Qa’ida would be able to take advantage.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).