People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09

February 28, 2010

Yemen on the Brink


Yohannan Chemarapally


YEMEN has been on the boil for some time now but it was the failed attempt by a young Nigerian to blow up an American plane in Detroit on Christmas Day that has brought the country into Washington’s direct line of fire. The Nigerian, a 24 year old London based student named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was carrying explosives hidden in his undergarments. He confessed to have received training in Yemen from the al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Americans, along with their close allies, the British and the French, briefly closed down their embassies in the Yemeni capital San’a citing security concerns. The western governments are now saying that Yemen is the new epicentre of global terrorism. 

President Barak Obama as well as his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton have been issuing stern warnings to the government in Yemen after the airplane terror incident. There have been implicit threats that the US would intervene militarily if the Yemeni government would not accede to demands for coordinated military action against the AQAP. Immediately after the abortive attempt to blow up the American plane, the White House despatched the US army general, David Petraeus. He offered more military aid and intelligence sharing with San'a. The Yemeni foreign minister, Abubakr Qirbi, said that his government has no objection to sharing intelligence but remained opposed to joint military action with foreign forces.

The Obama administration is keen to openly deploy American special forces in Yemen to tackle the AQAP. Media reports have said that American troops are already on the ground participating in joint operations with Yemeni security forces. The Washington Post in an editorial stated that the US has already launched a military offensive in Yemen. Clinton said in early January that it was “time for the international community to make it clear to Yemen that there are expectations and conditions for our continuing support for the government”.    

The central government in Yemen has been fighting more serious battles for many years before the so called al Qaeda threat emerged. Near the border with Saudi Arabia, separatist Houthi rebels had been waging a long running guerrilla war. In August last year, President Ali Abdulllah Saleh had with great fanfare announced the “final offensive” against the Houthis. But it was only due to the intervention of the Saudi army and help of American air power that the Houthis have been temporarily subdued though they are far from defeated. The Houthis have shown that they are capable of fighting on two fronts –against the government forces as well as the invading Saudi forces. They briefly took the battle across to the Saudi borders in November. But for massive Saudi and US intervention, the Saleh government was in danger of collapsing. A fragile ceasefire agreement was signed between the government and the rebels in late January. Both sides have already started accusing each other of violations of the cease fire since then.

In the South, there is a renewed secessionist movement gaining momentum. South Yemen which had gained independence in 1967 after driving out the British had joined the North in 1990 to form one united country. Since then the Southerners had felt discriminated. The South had a progressive political culture. It was known as the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen and was aligned with the Soviet Union in the seventies and the eighties during the cold war. Many in the South had opposed unification. A civil war erupted in 1994 with the central government in San'a using Salafist and jihadist elements to crush the former socialists in the south. Now those opposed to unification have been regrouping in the South, under the banner of the secessionist “Southern Movement” posing another serious challenge to the 30 year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Southern Movement is led by the former Marxist leader, Ali Salem al-Bidh, the man responsible for negotiating the first reunification agreement.

The “peace agreement” with the Houthis is an acknowledgement of the ground realities by the central government. The Houthis also known as the Zaidis are Shia tribesmen. They were the traditional rulers of Yemen for more than a thousand years before the coup in 1972 which overthrew the imamate. Yemeni Shiite comprise around 40 per cent of the country’s population of 22 million. Yemen is among the poorest states in the region. To make matters worse, its fast depleting oil resources are expected to last only for another seven years or so. Much of the state’s revenues were earned through oil exports. The region which the Houthis dominate is among the most underdeveloped in Yemen. The Houthis first took up arms in 2004, citing political, economic and religious marginalisation by the Saudi and US backed central government. Both the Houthis as well as the Southern Movement are willing to find a peaceful solution but have insisted that the “corrupt and authoritarian” Saleh led government has to be replaced first.

Even at the best of times, the Yemeni government’s brief rarely extended beyond the major cities. The fiercely independent tribes, especially in the north, adhered to their own set of rules. Yemen is also awash with arms. The interior ministry put the number of guns at the beginning of the decade at 60 million. For every individual, there are three guns. The jihadist elements always had strong roots in the North. Tens of thousands of Yemenis were encouraged to go to Afghanistan to fight the CIA sponsored war there. These “Arab-Afghans” form the core of the al Qaida in Yemen today. Osama bin Laden’s family roots are also in Yemen.  

Al Qaeda first signalled its presence in Yemen by launching an audacious attack on the American battleship---the USS Cole in the year 2000. President Saleh had to promise total cooperation with the US in the second Gulf War to prevent Yemen being targeted after the events of September 11, 2001. President Saleh had taken a principled stand during the first Gulf War and had declined to join the American led coalition that launched a 40 day war against Iraq. Washington as well as Yemen’s Gulf neighbours were livid with Saleh at the time. More than a million Yemenis were sent packing from their secure jobs in the Gulf, adding to the country’s economic woes.

Then there is the perceived threat of a so called Shia crescent emerging that would encompass the Gulf region under Iranian leadership. President Saleh has accused the Houthis of trying to establish a “Shiite zone” along the country’s common border with Saudi Arabia. At the same time the Yemeni president has alleged that the Houthis have established strong links with the al Qaeeda. The al Qaeda’s animosity to the Shia school of Islam is well known. The Iranian government has strongly denied any involvement and has supported an untied Yemen. At the same time Teheran has been very critical of Saudi and American intervention in the internal affairs of the country.

The Saudi authorities allege that the Houthis are acting on behalf of Iranian interests. No clinching evidence has been provided about Iranian connivance and help for the Houthis. The Saudis, however have reasons to be worried. The Shia dominated population centres in Yemen lie adjacent to the restive minority Shia population in Saudi Arabia concentrated in the provinces of Najran and Jizan, the site of the country’s eastern oilfields. The Shias in Saudi Arabia are known to be unhappy with the Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam and their own treatment as second class citizens.

The Yemeni government has also acceded to the Obama administration’s pressures to adopt a more proactive role against the groups affiliated to the al Qaida. The government does not want to publicly talk about its close collaboration with the Americans. The popular mood in Yemen remains strongly anti-American.  Yemen is now the recipient of the largest US counter-terrorism aid after Pakistan

US intelligence agencies themselves said that the number of al Qaeda activists does not exceed more than 200. Senior Yemeni officials have said that the so called threat being posed by al Qaeda “is being exaggerated”. The adviser to the Syrian Presidency, Bouthaina Shaaban, who was on an official visit to New Delhi said that what is being witnessed in Yemen today is an orchestrated attempt by the West to divide the Arabs on sectarian lines. She said that the al Qaida presence in Arab countries is being used as a pretext for military intervention by the US in the Arabian Peninsula.

The situation in Yemen has become further complicated because of the instability in Somalia, situated across the Gulf of Aden. The US sponsored overthrow of the government led by the Islamic Courts in 2008 has led to the rise of more militant groupings like the Al Shabab. According to western intelligence agencies this group has a working relationship with the AQAP in Yemen. As a result of the meltdown of their state and increasing violence and destitution, more than a million Somalis have taken refuge in Yemen.