Cooperation And Conflict: Analyzing The U.s.-yemen Relationship

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 10

Although President Salih condemned American military action against insurgents in Fallujah, saying that terror must be fought with persuasion and dialogue rather than anti-personnel bombs (al-Motamar 2004), he welcomed the new U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based in Djibouti. Yemen has been balancing military operations with efforts to build stable political foundations for some time now, opening the door for those formerly associated with political extremism to reintegrate themselves into Yemeni politics after renouncing their past. Yemen has also promised speedy trials for those accused of terrorism. In the words of Yemeni Prime Minister Abdul Qader Bajammal, “They are all sons of Yemen.” (al-Hayat 2003) The U.S. focus on its military campaign to disrupt international terror networks contrasts with Sana’a’s approach, which sees the war on terror as a continuation of its previous efforts to stabilize domestic politics under the regime’s auspices. Yemeni goals are long-term political aims whereas the American agenda focuses on short-term prosecution of military or law enforcement objectives. These goals are not necessarily contradictory, with each government recognizing that compromises and accommodations must be made, but their ambiguities create tense moments.

In December 2002, the White House ordered the release of a North Korean ship with SCUD missiles concealed under bags of cement to the Yemeni regime. Spanish warships had forcefully boarded the vessel under a U.S./NATO program for interdiction of illegal weapons at sea, but after conversations between Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Powell and President Salih, the missiles were allowed to continue to port. The Yemeni government suffered equal embarrassment when its security forces killed a number of Yemeni citizens during protests against the American invasion of Iraq. Sana’a was also forced to defend its partnership with the U.S. after an American predator missile killed six people, five Yemeni citizens and one American citizen, in the desert of Ma’rib. In both instances, the opposition press accused the regime of being an American puppet and demanded details on American involvement in Yemeni affairs (al-Sahwanet 2002). However, these incidents have not deterred Sana’a from maintaining cooperation with the U.S. on security issues.

The American missile came from the CJTF-HOA base in Djibouti, whose mission is to “focus on denying safe havens, external support and material assistance for terrorist activity within The Horn of Africa region.” The force was established to stop the reemergence of al-Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen, with a focus on the Red Sea and the possible emergence of a “seaborne Jihad.” (Lemarie 2003). The Spanish ships that boarded the Korean vessel were also working with the CJTF-HOA, when it was based on the carrier USS Whitney in the Gulf of Djibouti. Since then, the force has created a permanent land base at Camp Lemonier.

Clearly designed to support special operations on land, sea and air and to provide assistance to local security forces, the CJTF-HOA has played an active role in Yemen. Last month, U.S. Coast Guard officials attended ceremonies in Aden marking the inauguration of the new Yemeni Coast Guard. The commander of the CJTF-HOA from Djibouti attended earlier ceremonies for the first graduates of an American training program for Yemeni crews. By late this summer, a full fleet, consisting of thirteen 44-foot “motor life boats” with American trained crews, will patrol Yemen’s long coastline. These forces are designed control Yemen’s porous borders and to stop attacks like those against the MT Limburg and the USS Cole. There are similar efforts to build up Yemeni security on land. Yemen and Saudi Arabia are working jointly to secure their desert border, while the American embassy is helping train Yemeni personnel at border checkpoints (Mukaram 2004). American trained Special Forces led by the son of the president himself are working to destroy paramilitary challenges to the state. These elite troops recently attacked the remnants of an infamous Afghan-Arab terrorist camp at al-Huttat, reportedly capturing fugitives accused of involvement in the attacks on the USS Cole and the Limburg (al-Sahwanet 2004).

However, despite the fact that Yemen has welcomed the support of the CJTF-HOA, its participation in the American war on terrorism remains firmly rooted in the Yemeni regime’s strategy for political survival in the post-Soviet world. In the last decade, the two overriding political objectives of the regime have been to cultivate an alliance with the United States for external support and stabilize domestic politics by eliminating the threat posed by former allies among the Islamic political movements. Yemen’s economy and state are very dependent upon external sources of funding, therefore international alliances are extremely important. Internally, the regime’s strategy for domestic security was initiated after the disruptions of Yemeni civil war of 1994, long before Americans heard anything about al-Qaeda.

In that war, the current president of Yemen led the remnants of a cold war alliance of conservative military-tribal leaders from the north and modern Islamic activists against the secessionist wing of the Yemeni Socialist Party in the south. This umbrella group received outside funding from the Saudis and retained a great deal of independence. During the early years of Yemeni unity from 1990 to 1994, Islamic groups, including returning Afghan-Arabs, harassed the socialist opponents of the regime. Similar to Washington’s attitude towards Islamic militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Sana’a did not oppose these independent military and political groups while their guns and propaganda were trained on southern socialists. But following the demise of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the regime saw these independent groups as the main threat to their own power and sought to marginalize their political Islamic ideologies and neutralize any military threats by either incorporating them into the regular military or destroying them.

After the bombing of the USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks, the Yemeni regime accelerated its existing programs rather than launching new campaigns. The president publicly attacked the opposition Islah party for its alleged tolerance of extremist ideologies and support for terrorists. In the elections for parliament in 1997, and even more so in 2003, the president’s party pressed hard to diminish Islah’s influence in parliament, whereas prior to 1994, the two parties had coordinated their electoral strategies. The president forcefully repressed demonstrations against the American invasion of Iraq, and while acknowledging their right to express their opinions peacefully, directly accused opposition parties of endangering national security. The government began to regulate Imam’s in mosques and to close the independent “Scientific Institutes” that had become the educational recruiting grounds for Islamists. The Institutes will be integrated into the regular public school system with a government-regulated curriculum. Yemeni security forces have also dealt harshly with those attempting to kidnap foreigners or attack the oil pipelines in the desert, and, as a result, these forms of violence have disappeared.

The government has relentlessly pursued paramilitary groups and training camps. The latest round of battles took place this spring at al-Huttat in Abyan province and then again in Lawdar. American trained Special Forces captured suspects in the bombing of the USS Cole that had earlier escaped from a prison in Aden. Reportedly an Egyptian, formerly the leader of the Jihad group, was captured and turned over to Egyptian authorities (al-Jazeera 2004; al-Tawil 2004). Many people suspected of ties to extremist groups have been jailed, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. Recently the Yemeni prime minister revealed a program to pay tribes in remote areas not to harbor fugitives of any sort. In poor tribal areas, foreign countries or organizations can buy influence from tribal leaders who will take payments from almost anyone who offers significant support. This has made Yemen a haven for anyone fleeing justice, hence the initiative. Similarly, in the negotiations for a final border settlement with the Saudi regime, the Yemeni president insisted that the Saudis stop their payments to tribes. These measures give the central government a bit more influence over remote regions. In short, Yemen has aggressively attacked extremist political ideologies, independent paramilitary groups and those sowing chaos, not so much to cooperate with the American campaign, as to fulfill their own domestic agenda. However, the two agendas have overlapped, with a few exceptions.

Since the American invasion of Iraq the regime has stressed its political independence and the sovereignty of Yemeni law in dealing with extremists, terrorists and Americans. The United States’ apparent disregard for the conventions of international law has diminished the legitimacy of American requests for aid in the war on terror. President Salih appointed a judge to head a ministry of dialogue with former Islamic extremists and after meeting with jailed suspects authorized the release of a large number of detainees considered “redeemed.” Those remaining in prison were promised speedy trials. The FBI had long agitated in the case of the Cole bombing that suspects not be given speedy trials so that investigations could continue. Sana’a unsuccessfully fought the American extradition of Mohammed al-Muayyad from Germany on charges of financing terror, arguing that Yemeni citizens should face Yemeni law. When the United States announced it was freezing Abdul Majid al-Zindani’s assets on charges of financing terror, the Yemeni government responded that any legal action against al-Zindani would take place in Yemeni courts and that Yemen would never turn him over to the Americans. With the decline of support for the United States in the Arab world since the attack on Iraq, the Yemeni regime must respond to domestic criticism of its alliance with the U.S. Therefore, it has emphasized its own sovereignty and independence, and has refused requests by the Americans to set aside Yemeni law in the interests of American intelligence operations. These tensions will continue as Sana’a attempts to balance domestic and foreign pressures in an attempt to maintain power in Yemen.