People's Democracy

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


No. 51

December 19, 2010




Yemen in the Line of Fire


Yohannan Chemerapally


YEMEN is back in the news again for all the wrong reasons. The latest Wikileaks expose shows the Yemeni president, Abdullah Saleh, being arm twisted into allowing US counter-insurgency operations being launched on Yemeni territory. The Yemeni president is shown covering up for the Americans, pretending that his armed forces were responsible for the attacks on militant hideouts. In early November, Yemen had grabbed the international headlines when explosives originating from the country were intercepted in the nick of time in Dubai and in East Midlands, UK, airports. Last year, the “underwear bomber,” the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was involved in an attempt to blow up a Detroit bound American airliner. He too had boarded a flight from Yemen. The latest attempts involved placing explosives on planes bound for the West. The materiel used was pentaerythritol trinitrate, an explosive which is difficult to detect and extremely powerful.




The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has claimed credit for both the abortive attempts. In a statement released in the first week of November, AQAP said that it was responsible for the latest failed attempt. It has, however, also claimed credit for a crash of a cargo plane in Dubai in September. An aircraft belonging to UPS, the US delivery firm had crashed on September 9 in Dubai. “We downed the plane belonging to the American UPS company but because the media of the enemy did not attribute responsibility for the action to us we kept quiet about the operation until the time came that we hit again,” said a statement posted on Islamists web sites.


Many European countries were quick to ban cargo emanating from Yemen after the packages containing explosives were discovered in late October. US authorities are claiming that they were aware of the threat couple of weeks before the latest incident. Aviation and counter-terrorism experts are of the view that it is extremely difficult to detect the explosives as thousands of packages and thousands of planes are involved on a daily basis in airports throughout the world.  


Yemen, along with Somalia, has emerged as the latest threat to the West. Islamists opposed to the American presence in Arab and Muslim lands, have gained a foothold in Yemen. Even during the best of times, the central government in Sana’a only had a tenuous control over the hinterland, where tribal warlords ruled the roost. Yemen is also awash with light arms. Thousands of Yemenis, with the tacit support of the CIA, had gone to Afghanistan to wage “jihad” in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They came back radicalised. It is therefore no surprise that the Al Qaeda does not find it difficult to find willing recruits for its cause in Yemen. Besides, the AQAP has many Saudi recruits forced to flee from their country after the massive security crackdown there following the events of September 11, 2001. It was Saudi intelligence that alerted the West about the latest “parcel bombs” from Yemen. Graduates from Saudi financed Salafi schools have filled the Al Qaeda ranks in Yemen. Salafism is a fundamentalist version of Islam, favoured by the Saudi establishment and conservative Muslim scholars.


Since the beginning of the year, the Obama administration has been piling on the pressure on the Yemeni government to take decisive action against the AQAP and other groups opposed to the presence of foreign troops on the Arabian Peninsula. The government of the long ruling President Abdullah Saleh has been flooded with counter-terrorism dollars from Washington. The US military aid to Yemen has been hiked to 155 million dollars this year. The Pentagon has earmarked 1.5 billion dollars for the next five years as security assistance for the country. In 2006, Yemen received a paltry 5 million dollars in military aid from the US. US economic aid, on the other hand, also remains paltry.




Before being arm twisted into cooperating with the US, President Saleh was among the few Arab leaders who had opposed the first Gulf War. Yemen, which was a member of the UN Security Council at the time, had voted against the declaration of war against a brotherly Arab country. American retribution was immediate. The administration of George Bush Senior cancelled the entire aid budget for Yemen, which anyway amounted to only 70 million dollars. It was meant to send a signal to other nations about the consequences of not toeing the American line on key international issues. Earlier in the year, the Obama administration announced that it was giving Yemen 70 million President Saleh in aid. But the aid Washington announced was to be used for “counter-terrorism.”


Washington has been insisting for some time now that the AQAP poses a genuine threat to US interests in the region. The CIA, in a recent report, described AQAP as “a more urgent threat” to American security than Al Qaeda’s parent group itself. The militant group is comparatively more active in Yemen than in other countries of the region. But most Yemenis, according to reports in the Arab and western media, feel that the threat is being exaggerated by the West. US officials themselves admit that there could be at the most around 600 Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen. Yemenis feel that the US is trying to find an excuse to militarily occupy their country.


The people of Yemen have now more cause to be concerned. After the latest attempt to down American passenger aircrafts, there have been loud demands by the US military and the political establishment to put American military boots on the ground in Yemen. They want the Obama administration to give the green signal to allow the US Special Operations Command units to strike at targets inside Yemen. US Special Forces are already engaged in training the Yemeni soldiers. The Obama administration has announced that the US born preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, and Ibrahim Hassan al-Assiri, the alleged mastermind of the two failed bomb attacks, are on its death list. Both of them are supposed to be in Yemen.


President Saleh is reluctant to openly involve American forces in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations inside Yemen. Public opinion in the country is overwhelmingly against such a move. But the beleaguered president, facing tribal insurrection in the North and an escalating secessionist movement in the South, could succumb to American pressure. Like the Pakistani government, the government in Sana’a is dependent on American aid for survival. Like the government in Islamabad, the Yemeni government is also forced to turn a blind eye as the US carries out covert operations, including drone attacks, using its territory. US Special Forces, drones and war planes have been active in Yemen since the 2001 attack on the USS Cole. Many militants and anti-government tribal leaders have been targeted by the Americans.




The killing of innocent civilians as a result of American drone attacks and counter-insurgency operations has contributed to the growing anger of the people against the US. The UK think tank Chatham House, in a recent report stated that western policies on Yemen could push the people there “towards radicalisation and militancy.” An expert on Yemen, Genny Hill, who co-authored the report, said that increased military cooperation between the US and Yemen has not provided the necessary results. “There have been a number of (military) strikes where the US is alleged to have been involved. The key thing to note is that Al Qaeda’s leadership remains intact despite increase in resource and increase in activity,” said Hill. She added that the American policy is driving a wedge between President Saleh and his support base in a country where there is “an enormous amount of hostility” to the US. The think tank argued that too much emphasis was being given to security related issues to the detriment of more important issues like the failing economy.


Yemen is among the poorest states in the region. The rising poverty graph, coupled with the rampant corruption and mismanagement of the Saleh government, has already alienated most Yemenis from their government. Today the country is facing multiple threats, the most important being from the South of the country. The South Yemenis, who were independent till 1990, seem to have once again decided to part ways with the North. There was a civil war in the mid-nineties between the North and the South. The Saleh government taking the help of Islamist parties and militias defeated the formerly Socialist South. This time the leaders of secessionist movement allege that Saleh is using the bogey of Al Qaeda to suppress them militarily, with US help.


In fact the AQAP has been careful in keeping out of local Yemeni politics and keeping their fire concentrated on the “far enemies” — a code word for the West. The “near enemies” in al Qaeda lingo are the regimes having close security ties with Washington. Interestingly, the two Chicago bound “parcel bombs” from Yemen which were intercepted in the last week of October were addressed to Diego Deza and Reynald Krak. They were the names of two historical figures from Europe who were notorious for their anti-Islamic fervour. Deza was a Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition which targeted Muslims and Jews while Krak was a Crusader who specialised in beheading the Muslim soldiers he captured on the battlefield. Reynald was beheaded by Saladin the Great who defeated the Crusaders and expelled them from Arab soil in the 12th century.


The US gameplan at this juncture seems to be to get Yemen into the security structures that already exist in the Gulf. When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in 1981, Yemen was excluded from the grouping. Saleh was seen at the time as being too close to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The reasons for including Yemen in an anti-Iran security grouping have become more urgent as Yemen straddles the Bab-el-Mandeb, an important shipping route connecting the Gulf to Europe. Currently, much of the oil bearing marine traffic goes through the Straits of Hormuz on which Iran can easily exert control if there is a military flare-up. Besides, Yemen’s neighbours in the Gulf fear that instability in Yemen has the potential to rapidly spread across its borders.