The government of Yemen has stated unequivocally that it will accept no U.S. ground forces in the country, and that such deployment would only be counterproductive in the struggle against al-Qaeda and its local affiliate, Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The U.S., warns Yemen’s Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi “should learn from its experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan and not repeat the mistakes in Yemen, both in dealing with the government of Yemen and confronting al-Qaeda.” “Any intervention or direct action by the United States could strengthen the al-Qaeda network and not weaken it,” adds Deputy Prime Minister Rashed al-Aleemi.
The Minister of Religious Endowment and Islamic Guidance, Hamoud al-Hitar, declares, “Military action in Yemen, by either the US or any other country, will make all Yemeni people unite, ending their internal disputes to stand together against any direct military intervention.”
U.S. military officials for their part have denied any intention of dispatching troops to the Arab world’s most impoverished nation. Mired in two failed wars in Southwest Asia they hardly savor the prospect of guerrilla conflict on the Gulf of Aden. (The British have been there and done that during the “Aden Emergency” from 1963 to 1967.) Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says this is “not a possibility,” while Gen. David Petreaus has told Christiane Amanpour that he wants Yemen to deal with its al-Qaeda problem itself. Commander-in-Chief Obama has declared he has “no intention of sending boots on the ground” to Yemen.
Yemen has been in the spotlight since the Christmas Day Underwear Bomber’s abortive effort to blow up a Delta/Northwest airliner over Detroit, apparently planned in Yemen in conjunction with AQAP. The neocon crazies are as usual on the warpath, threatening invasion as a knee-jerk response, their message resonating with a sector of public opinion. (71% of those responding to a recent Fox poll agreed that “U.S. troops need to be sent [to Yemen] to eliminate Al Qaeda and the threat it poses to national security.”) Still, the official comments cited above suggest there’s no imminent danger of a U.S. assault (beyond the ongoing drone attacks). The U.S., the most powerful imperialist country in history, is overextended militarily and in grave economic crisis. But that does not mean opponents of imperialist war can be complacent.
Let us think for a moment like al-Qaeda thinks. I do not mean the way Osama bin Laden himself thinks, or the way any particular al-Qaeda militant thinks. I mean the way al-Qaeda realizes that its millions of admirers, whom it can’t reach directly and must merely inspire by model actions, think. They believe in a God who created the universe, a compassionate and just Supreme Being. This belief, which they share in common with the overwhelming majority of Americans, contributes to their indignation at a world dominated by a superpower characterized by cruelty and injustice. The plight of the Palestinians displaced by European Zionists, subjected to humiliations and abuses so grotesquely illustrated by the blitzkrieg of Gaza a year ago, is only one example of this cruelty and injustice. The newly elected president said nothing; the Congress cheered on the carnage. Or the U.S.-imposed sanctions of Iraq throughout the 1990s, that killed at least half a million children. Under such circumstances some Muslims do indeed disregard the Qur’anic rejection of attacks on innocent civilians, in efforts to force those in nations whose governments are responsible for Muslim suffering to feel some of that suffering. It is modern terrorism quite distinct from historical models of jihad, but it responds to modern conditions dissimilar to those faced by the caliphates and emirates of the past.
Bin Laden perhaps realized on 9-11 that after that dramatic event his arch-enemy would swallow the bait, or rather follow its basic nature, and use the opportunity to ferociously attack (as Donald Rumsfeld put it in a remarkably candid note immediately after the attacks: “Go massive. Sweep it all. Things related and not.”). The killing of 3000 on 9-11 provoked the beast to slaughter thousands of Afghans within months and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis within two years, while destabilizing Pakistan. It afforded the opportunity for U.S. forces to reestablish a presence in the Philippines and expand efforts to integrate Georgia into the NATO military alliance. Bin Laden may have known that George Bush would relate unrelated things (like Iran and Iraq, and the Islamic Courts Union of Somalia) with al-Qaeda, deploying such rhetoric as “You’re either for us or against us” and “axis of evil” to convey not so subtly to his audience the concept that the U.S. really was at war with Islam in general. The occasional statement to the contrary or politically expedient Eid party at the White House did little to counter that basic impression. Bush was a useful, indeed invaluable partner in bin Laden’s project of forcing a head-on confrontation between the western and Islamic worlds.
The invasion of Afghanistan resulted in the rapid overthrow of the Taliban and its replacement with a puppet president and a warlord cabinet. The inefficacy and corruption of the latter, and the arrogance of the foreign soldiers, helped produce a resurgence of the Taliban. Although the Taliban had nothing to do with 9-11, and there was in fact some tension between al-Qaeda and its Afghan hosts before the attacks in 2001, al-Qaeda was able to pit the U.S and its ISAF allies against the Taliban and much of Afghan society. Inevitably, aerial attacks on civilians produced outrage generating more support for the Taliban and potentially al-Qaeda, not only in Afghanistan but in neighboring Pakistan where local al-Qaeda franchises have emerged spontaneously.
The invasion of Iraq resulting in the overthrow of a secularist regime and its replacement with a Shiite-led government has alienated substantial sections of the populace for various reasons. Among them are Iraqi Sunnis who welcomed outside support in their confrontation with the U.S. forces and their allies. (Dozens of Yemenis gained military experience fighting western troops in Iraq and are now the backbone of AQAP.) Al-Qaeda may have hoped for a more successful Sunni “insurgency” against the puppet regime and occupation, headed by the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; at minimum it has produced a polarized situation in which it can play a role. (It had no role in Saddam’s Iraq.) More importantly, the invasion based on lies has produced near-universal revulsion within the Muslim world, and encouraged the perception that the U.S. is indeed waging war on Islam itself.
Yemen is a perfect venue for more confrontation, on al-Qaeda’s terms. This is bin Laden’s father’s homeland, and he has a wide following here. Al-Qaeda enjoys little support among the large Shiite (Zaydi) minority concentrated in the north, but elsewhere it is able to capitalize on popular outrage at the oppression of the Palestinians, the sanctions imposed on Iraq and the invasion and occupation of that country, and U.S. support for vicious Arab regimes. It is able to exploit the fact that the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh is fighting not only an insurgency in the north led by the Zaydi Houthi tribe but a secessionist movement in the south.
The latter movement is rooted among former officials and military officers of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), which merged with the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) to form the present Republic of Yemen in 1990. Saleh was president of North Yemen from 1978 and has been the unchallenged leader of the united country for 20 years. His opponents in the Southern Movement (including secularist Baathists and Nasserites, who have little in common with al-Qaeda) view him as a corrupt, nepotistic dictator using U.S. aid and the exaggerated al-Qaeda threat to his own advantage.
In 1994 southerners mounted a short-lived rebellion against the union. Their dissatisfaction arose in part from the inequitable distribution of revenue from oil, which is produced exclusively in the southern part of the country that nonetheless remains lags behind the north. Saleh, himself a (secular) Shiite from the north, cunningly deployed Islamist forces from the north to help suppress the rebellion. Jihadist leader Tariq al-Fadhli, a veteran of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan in the eighties, was among these. He is of southern origin; his family fled to the north after its property was nationalized by the leftist regime in the 1970s. According to “terrorism analyst” Rafid Fadhil Ali, “The terminology he uses in his statements and speeches is more patriotic than Islamist.” He acknowledges meeting bin Laden in Afghanistan many years ago but insists, “I have strong relations with all of the jihadists in the north and the south and everywhere, but not with al-Qaeda.”
Now the south is in revolt again, using mostly peaceful tactics of resistance. But al-Fadhli has switched sides, joining what is called the Southern Movement and advocating militant tactics. Saleh has seized upon this to smear the Southern Movement in general as an al-Qaeda offshoot, and to strengthen his grip over the country with U.S. support. At present he receives far more military aid from Russia and China than the U.S., and he apparently realizes the political risks of too close an association with a widely hated imperialist power. On the other hand his government is weak and risks losing control over the oil-rich south without outside support.
While al-Fadhli denies al-Qaeda ties, and the Southern Movement seems clearly dominated by secularists and nationalists rather than bin Laden-type Islamists, AQAP has opportunistically embraced the southern secessionist cause. As analyst Ali puts it, this allows Saleh to claim that “the Southern Movement and al Qaeda are one and the same, a convenient way to insure backing from Washington.” Meanwhile as Princeton University professor Bernard Haykel puts it, “Any association [of the U.S.] with the (Yemeni) regime will only confirm al Qaida’s narrative, which is that America is only interested in maintaining corrupt and despotic rulers and is not interested in the fate of Arabs and Muslims.”
The U.S. may have no boots on the ground in Yemen, other than those of some trainers. Rather, there are attacks on targets conducted by drones, apparently approved by the Saleh regime. These have occurred since 2002 and are occurring with increasing frequency. The December 17 attack on a site north of the capital of Sana’a (in insurgent Houthi territory) killed 34 al-Qaeda militants and foiled a terror plot, according to the Yemeni government. But a local official reported 49 civilians killed, among them 23 children and 17 women, while opposition politicians say 120 were killed. This was followed by a strike in the south on a meeting planning a protest on the December 24 attack. The abortive Delta/Northwest bombing was depicted by AQAP as revenge for these attacks.
As al-Jazeera has editorialized: “A dozen years ago, a demoralized group with nowhere to go but the hills of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda began targeting America instead of the region’s authoritarian regimes hoping to destabilize the region, bloody America’s nose and gain popularity. Its strategy was simple: Draw the US into direct confrontation against and within the Muslim world. Like sheep to the slaughter house, America walked right into its trap.”
Who wants to walk further down into the trap? Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, keen advocate of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, campaigner for the Iran attack, stands at the head of the line. “Iraq was yesterday’s war,” he told Fox News. “Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.” Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) appearing on the same program agreed, and Sen Arlen Specter (D-PA) has said an attack on Yemen is “something we should consider.”
U.S. intelligence estimates there are only about 200 al-Qaeda members in Yemen. Al-Qirbi stated on December 29, “There are maybe hundreds of them—200, 300.” Award-winning Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn estimates 200-300. According to one estimate only about 90 of these are fully armed. The Yemeni government doesn’t really see them as a threat to itself. “The view from Sana’a doesn’t match the view from Washington,” points out Gregory Johnson, a Princeton graduate student specializing in Yemen. “The Yemeni government is much more concerned with fighting the Houthis in Saada and with the secessionists in the south. Al-Qaeda ranks a distant third. The government doesn’t see it as a Yemeni problem. [It sees it as] a foreign problem.”
The Obama administration, in the wake of the Underwear Bomber Affair, which it insists on closely linking to Yemen’s homegrown al-Qaeda, is pressuring its uncomfortable ally Saleh to accept more drone attacks, more military aid, more “advisors.” Both Obama and Saleh are walking into the trap, the former because he is the president of an imperialist country competing with other powers for control of the Indian Ocean, and a politician jockeying for position within an environment where neocon hawks retain a shocking degree of power and credibility, the latter because he has few options. Saleh cannot refuse U.S. drone strikes where the Pakistanis have failed to do so. The best he can do is persuade the U.S. to hit his own enemies among the Houthis and the adherents of the Southern Movement and hope al-Qaeda doesn’t flourish as a result of the consequent rage.
Adm. Mullen says a U.S. war on Yemen is “not a possibility.” Obama says “no boots on the ground.” All that sounds comforting. But if air strikes continue to enrage Yemenis against the U.S., doing precisely al-Qaeda’s work for it, and if the current regime as U.S. partner is blamed and toppled as a result, we may hear that U.S. troops will have to be sent to prevent Yemen from becoming a haven for international terrorists.
That’s certainly bin Laden’s plan. He has many unwitting allies in its execution.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org