Landscape Of Shifting Alliances

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 7

There can be little doubt that Yemen plays a key role in the US-led war on al-Qaeda’s terrorist network, but it is a role that the Arab country would have preferred not to take on. Indeed, had it not been for al-Qaeda’s attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in October 2002, Yemen might well have continued the ambiguous posture it had long assumed toward the spectre of Islamist terrorism. The Limburg attack, unlike the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, threatened the government’s oil revenues – almost its only source of income. Sana’a had little choice but to act decisively with Washington against al-Qaeda, reversing a policy begun by Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Salih in 1980, following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union.

The Yemeni president articulated his country’s position towards what the US described as “terrorists” in a speech at the private al-Iman University in Sana’a on April 17, 1999. “Our country does not sponsor violence. We sponsored our brothers who returned from Afghanistan. We and the entire world used to support Afghanistan, including the United States, the sponsor of the new world order. It supported the Islamic movements to go to Afghanistan to carry out jihad there and to confront Communism. After it dispensed with these mujahideen, it tried to brand them as terrorists. This is unacceptable. Many ulema and people know this. We said we welcome them in their country, Yemen, but we will not allow anyone to move in any direction against his country.” [1] Salih had supported the mujahideen from the outset of the Afghan war in 1980, this support translating into a willingness to provide them with sanctuary in Yemen. But the president likewise gave the so-called Afghan-Arabs, who later morphed into al-Qaeda, ample warning not to undertake any actions that would harm Yemen itself – actions such as the bombing of oil tankers like the Limburg.

Al-Qaeda’s statement about the Limburg bombing said it carried out the attack “after the regime of treason and treachery in Yemen did all it could and could not do to hunt down, pursue, and arrest the Muslim mujahid youths in Yemen.” [2] Clearly suggesting that Yemen was being punished for its part in the US-led war on terrorism, the bombing seemed like retribution for Salih’s pursuit of al-Qaeda operatives then in the country. By that time, Yemen was under considerable pressure from the US to investigate terrorists such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Ali Qa’id Sinyan al-Harithi, who were suspected of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole as well as the attacks of September 11, 2001. Under such pressure, Sana’a had little choice but to bow to Washington’s demands or face military reprisals or economic sanctions. Yet, as the al-Qaeda statement observed, the Limburg attack coincided “with the passage of a full year on the world Crusade against jihad and the mujahideen…and the passage of two full years on the destruction of the American destroyer USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden.” [3] In a word, the Yemeni government had come under counter pressure from al-Qaeda for exactly the same reasons chosen by the US government.

More obliquely, by speaking of the regime of “treason and treachery” the al-Qaeda statement also referred to events farther back in time, when the Salih government had forged an alliance with bin Laden’s Afghan-Arabs. Like other Arab nations, Yemen supported the call for Islamic volunteers to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But a large number of Yemen’s contingent consisted of exiles from the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) driven out of the South by the Marxist take-over in 1967. Many had fled to Saudi Arabia where – together with earlier Yemeni émigrés such as the bin Laden family or the bin Mahfouz – they nurtured ideas of eventually returning home and expelling their political adversaries. That dream was not to be realized for at least two decades or more and it was President Ali Abdullah Salih who provided the exiles with their opportunity for revenge.

In late 1989, as leader of the Arab Republic of Yemen (North Yemen), Salih announced an agreement with the Southern leadership to merge the two countries into a single Republic of Yemen. Under terms of the agreement, power would be shared between the rulers of the two countries through a three-year transitional period leading to the full merger and democratic elections. But even as the merger was announced, Salih undertook a separate and secret relationship with the fundamentalist al-Islah Party, aimed at securing the demise of his political partners from the South and giving him full control of the newly established state. Founded shortly after the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, Islah was co-led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, the hereditary leader of Yemen’s largest confederation of tribes, the Hashid, and by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, then head of Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood. [4]

The two Islah leaders also worked with another exile from South Yemen named Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli. A member of a former ruling family of South Yemen, Fadhli had taken up Islamist causes as a youth in Saudi Arabia and, funded by Osama bin Laden, he eventually “divided his time between Iran, the northern borders of Pakistan, and Afghanistan.” [5] In a word, Fadhli fought as a member of bin Laden’s Afghan-Arabs against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. At the end of that war, he returned to Saudi Arabia, and with the continuing patronage of bin Laden, quietly filtered back into Yemen as head of its Islamic Jihad Organization with aims of exacting revenge on his Marxist adversaries then sharing power with Salih in the newly unified Yemen.

Islah and the Islamic Jihad Organization were discreet partners in Salih’s plan against South Yemen’s ruling party, the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). Forming the overt side of that relationship, Islah leaders frequently stated their distaste for working with the “godless” YSP. From the unification of the country to the civil war of 1994, Islah leaders repeatedly threatened jihad against the YSP. That threat and its apparent implementation first became evident in 1992 with debate in parliament over so-called scientific institutes founded by Zindani in the 1970s.

Funded by Salih’s government but operated by Islamist organizations, the institutes supposedly taught a Quranic curriculum. But the YSP discovered they were fronts for Islamic militants, used as staging posts and training facilities for a stream of mujahideen passing between Cairo and Kabul, with occasional stopovers in Khartoum, then home to Osama bin Laden and the Sudanese Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi. As the Yemeni parliament began legislation to end government funding of the institutes, Ahmar threatened jihad. When the legislation passed, the home of the speaker of parliament – a member of the YSP – was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. [6] As the covert side of the relationship, the Islamic Jihad Organization carried out a systematic campaign of terror and violence against the YSP that eventually led to the outbreak of the 1994 civil war. Members of the Islamic Jihad Organization, experienced by the war in Afghanistan and financed by bin Laden, even fought in the war on Salih’s behalf.

With the defeat of the southern leaders in July 1994, Salih assumed full control over the unified Republic of Yemen. At the same time, and to the surprise of many in the Islamist cause, Fadhli disbanded the Islamic Jihad Organization, calling on former members to “get jobs in accordance with the legitimate framework.” [7] It is here that many Afghan-Arabs see Salih’s “treachery and treason”. Unlike Fadhli, who regained hereditary lands owned by his family in the South, many Afghan-Arabs were not ready to join the establishment, expecting Salih to grant them substantial political power in the new Yemeni state. Instead, they found they had been used by Salih to dispose of his rivals, and were then being disposed of themselves. In effect, many of Afghan-Arabs were hoping to establish a theocracy that reflected their Islamist leanings.

Although denied this opportunity, the Arab-Afghans soon began to create their own economic structures in Yemen and by 1996 were “involved in 27 commercial ventures in the area of exports and who have at their disposal $20-$25 million… These firms are bankrolled by Osama Bin Laden, who is adept at mixing commerce and ideology.” [8]

Having made an enemy of bin Laden, Salih has had to move cautiously over the years to maintain control over his country. At the same time, however, the Yemeni leader has had to move equally cautiously with the US – particularly after bin Laden’s attacks on New York and Washington DC. Clearly, Salih has been treading a very narrow tightrope, and there can be little wonder of his need to tread cautiously in either direction. There can be even less wonder of his reluctance to make any move at all.


1. Yemen TV, 17 Apr 99.

2. “al-Qaeda Statement Congratulates Yemenis on the Bombing of the French Tanker Off Yemen’s Coast”, London: Al Quds al-Arabi, 16 Oct 02, p.2.

3. “al-Qaeda Statement Congratulates Yemenis on the Bombing of the French Tanker Off Yemen’s Coast”, London: Al Quds al-Arabi, 16 Oct 02, p.2.

4. Both leaders had strong anti-Marxist credentials. According to files of the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Ahmar and his tribesmen came to the support of Salih’s government in its struggles against Marxist South Yemen in early 1979. As a result, Ahmar was appointed a member of Salih’s advisory council on its creation in May 1979, and by 1982 had become a member of the Permanent Committee of Salih’s ruling party, the General Peoples’ Congress. Zindani had similar anti-Marxist propensities. Although born in North Yemen, Zindani received his early education in South Yemen under the British. He went onto Ain Shams University in Cairo where he initially studied chemistry and biology. But, under the influence of the early Islamist thinkers – Imam Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb – Zindani soon switched to Islamic studies. He returned to South Yemen in 1966, but had to flee in 1967 when the Marxists took control of the country. Like many other Yemeni exiles, he went to Saudi Arabia. There, he followed the teachings of the Saudi Mufti Abdul Aziz bin Baz and eventually became a senior official in the Islamic Call Organization. In 1970, Zindani returned to North Yemen where he was appointed advisor to the Ministry of Education and helped to found the Muslim Brothers.

5. Al-Wassat, pp 11-17, Jan 93.

6. According to Al-Hayat, 08 Jan 93, the suspected attacker was a member of the Islamic Jihad Organization.

7. Al-Hayat, London: 04 Sep 94.

8. Al-Watan al-Arabi, Paris: 27 Dec 96.