Shifting Sands: Al-Qaeda and Tribal Gun-Running Along the Yemeni Frontier

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 7

For centuries, tribal politics in Yemen have been driven by one simple concept: loyalty is sold to the highest bidder. While both Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government have used this principle to their advantage, it is al-Qaeda that has been the high bidder in recent years, seeking to ensure a regular transport for arms to its cells in Saudi Arabia and beyond. Under the new conditions created by the war on terror, however, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih is being forced to find resolution to this long-standing problem.

Al-Qaeda’s presence in remote tribal areas is a subject of intense interest in the West given the porous frontier of the Saudi-Yemeni border and the arms trafficking that occurs within this zone. Tribal gun-running in this region is particularly important given the links between Yemen and al-Qaeda that date back to the mid-1990s when the bulk of al-Qaeda’s foot soldiers in Afghanistan reportedly came from Yemen. In fact, Bin Laden was apparently so successful in attracting recruits from Yemen that the Yemeni component of his forces in Afghanistan once was believed to be as high as 4,000 men. Other accounts estimate that this number even went as high as 32,000, which alongside the Pakistanis would make the Yemenis the bulk of Bin Laden’s forces in Afghanistan.[1]

The tribal border areas of Yemen have long served as a conducive political environment for al-Qaeda. It is in this region that suspicion of – and opposition to – the central government is a constant inconstancy that has made the governing of Yemen more closely resemble that of a ‘tribalocracy’. The abiding preoccupation of the tribal groups in rural and remote Yemen is autonomy, and what each perceives as its due share of national resources and funding. The inability of Sana’a to accommodate these competing interests, whether for economic or political reasons, spawns inevitable disaffection. When this is combined with Sana’a’s attempts at expanding the reach of the central government, it morphs into antagonism.

A painful example of the strength of this antagonism was learnt in December 2001 when the Yemeni Government launched an operation in Ma’rib designed to capture Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, as part of the war on terrorism. The tribal leaderships viewed the action as an attack on their autonomy, irrespective of the al-Qaeda factor. Moreover, for Yemenis of whatever complexion al-Qaeda is a western preoccupation, not theirs. If anything, Bin Laden scores over George W Bush politically, culturally and ethnically. The mission, as it turned out, not only failed in its objective but also caused heavy government losses when soldiers met heavy resistance from well-armed tribesmen.[2]

A Culture of Arms

The role of arms in tribal society represent a major problem for Yemeni authorities in exerting control over troublesome tribal regions where local sympathy for bin Laden often outweighs support for the central government. Al-Qaeda has been able to exploit this culture to funnel weapons and equipment to cells operating inside Saudi Arabia which has needless to say irritated relations with Riyadh. It is the level of this armament which complicates the issue in establishing enough governmental authority to eradicate the influence of militant Islamism.

Government officials themselves speak of 60 million weapons dispersed among a population of 18 million. That is, three firearms per capita. Outside the major cities the tradition of bearing arms is well ingrained. All males past puberty openly carry arms, which makes for an explicitness in arms trading that few countries can match. The town of Sa’da, for example, situated 25 miles south of the border with Saudi Arabia, boasts the biggest arms souk where, in addition to small firearms, an 85mm surface-to-surface missile can be purchased as well as, discreetly, surface-to-air missiles. Arm’s trafficking is strongly defended by the regional tribal leaders, who fear that the loss of the trade will spell their marginalization from political life. Consequently, President Salih, who during the 1994 civil war purchased tribal support in his drive to consolidate power, is wary enough of their influence not to attempt radical intervention into tribal arms smuggling.

Saudi-Yemeni tensions focused acutely on the 1,500 km border. During the 1990s, particularly after Yemen voiced its support for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War, border clashes claimed victims on both sides and, despite the long-awaited 2000 Jeddah border treaty, the resentment lingers on. One of the disastrous consequences of the period was Riyadh’s policy of lending financial support to opponents of President Salih, including religious radicals. When the border dispute was officially brought to an end in 2000 Saudi funding to the Yemeni Islamists dried up, which left them open to blandishments from Al-Qaeda.

Escalations on the Border

When the earlier Saudi policy in due course backfired, the finger of suspicion pointed back at the Yemeni arms smugglers over the border. The trade has grown progressively more violent, with a total of 36 Saudi border guards killed at the Saudi frontier town of Jizan between March 2002 and February 2003. The explosives used in last year’s bombings were claimed by official Saudi media to be of Yemeni origin, as were those used in earlier attacks on the American compound in 1995 and the mosque bombing in Bahah province in 1993. Since the May bombings daily hauls of large quantities of weapons and explosives have already notched up figures in excess of 100,000 rounds of ammunition, grenades, over 2,000 sticks of dynamite, 100s of bazookas and more than 1,200 assorted firearms. By December, as a result of the increased policing of the border, the number of persons arrested had topped 4,000.

By February of this year tensions between the two countries peaked. In early January the Saudis initiated construction of a security fence, part of a larger plan to erect what is to be an electronic surveillance system costing some $9 billion, along the entire length of the Kingdom’s land and sea frontiers. The point of contention was a raised barrier section designed to close off a 20km stretch in a neutral no-man’s land zone. Placing the barrier within the zone was taken by local Yemeni tribal figures as a breach of the Jeddah agreement. These last have already started to attack workers erecting demarcation posts and have issued threats of more concerted military action, claiming a force of 3,000 in place to defend Yemeni claims. While some swift diplomacy has to an extent calmed the issue, with talk of increased border security policing, the construction of the barrier is itself a sign of Saudi distrust of Yemeni commitment. Riyadh has stated that it intends to maintain the work carried out to date.

Balance of Risks

The central government’s effort to crack down on arms trafficking creates a balance of risks for both the Yemeni government and al-Qaeda. Having galvanized international and now regional reaction, al-Qaeda appears to be gambling that President Salih will not be able to sustain domestic opposition to a security policy perceived as serving US interests. But it is an unsafe gamble since al-Qaeda cannot rely on the unconditional protection of the tribes. As in Iraq, where US pockets proved deeper than Saddam Hussein’s, enough to secure his betrayal by former supporters, military support in the face of overwhelmingly superior technology and a concerted carrot-and-stick treatment from Sana’a will not come cheap.

For his part, the Yemeni President has had to weigh the options of buying loyalty away from the Islamist militants, which given the complexities of inter-tribal relations may prove difficult. Ultimately, President Salih’s political future may force him to give the tribes more autonomy if he cannot deliver more economic assistance. The traditional weak point in tribal politics in Yemen also applies here as well. If the centre at Sana’a cannot be maintained equidistant to all, then the pressure to make an accommodation for fear of losing out becomes all the more cogent.

Increasingly, there are signs that the sands may be shifting. More telling, perhaps, than the optimistic statement of Prime Minister Abdul Qadir Bajammal that payoffs to tribes had acted to dismantle 90 percent of al-Qaeda cells in the country, is the uncharacteristic call made earlier in January by al-Qaeda for a deal with the Yemeni government: that operations against western interests in Yemen be halted in return for safe passage for the mujahideen to join their fellows in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Consequently, Yemen and al-Qaeda might be reaching a new modus vivendi in the tribal areas. If permission is being sought from Sana’a, then it would appear that al-Qaeda’s confidence in tribal protection has waned.


1. An indication of the preponderance of Yemeni mujahideen in Afghanistan and how their numbers devalued their currency, may be gauged by a letter complaining of their treatment was published in the London-based Arabic political journal al-Majalla in December 2002. It featured what was a semi-mutinous complaint signed by 32 Yemeni fighters addressed to Commander Sayf al-‘Adl, which began sarcastically: “From ‘dervishes’ and tribesmen on the frontline..,” and listed what they held was the incompetence of their commanders and their cavalier and hypocritical treatment of them, in particular from Sayf al-‘Adl, whom they heard had referred to them disdainfully as ‘tramps’. The letter was dated September 11, 2000.

2. The issue was resolved in November 2002 with the US Predator attack, which killed Al-Harithi. The action avoided the problem of an army itself composed of tribesman who cannot be relied on to fire on members of their own or allied tribes. Tribesmen have also been suspected of compromising operations by revealing information to protect relatives and allies.