Special Report from Yemen: Escalation of Violence Moves Yemen Closer to Civil War


In the early hours of Saturday, March 12, Yemeni security forces under the direction of Yemen’s Central Security Service (CSS) (which is commanded by Yahya Salih and is home to the U.S. funded and trained “counter-terror unit”) stormed the anti-government protesters’ camp near Sana’a University. The ensuing battle between the protesters and state security forces resulted in over 100 injured and two dead protesters. The violence continued across Yemen on Sunday with more injured protesters and one death reported in the southern port city of Aden.

In Sana’a, anti-government demonstrators accused security forces of using, during confrontations on Thursday, March 10, some kind of toxic gas that caused convulsions and temporary paralysis among some of those who came into contact with it. While it has yet to be determined what type of gas was used, if indeed anything other than CS and CN gas were used, three types of expended gas canisters were present at the scene of the battle between security forces and demonstrators. The Yemeni government has denied using what protesters and some doctors are calling “nerve gas”. [1] Protesters, who remain in large numbers near Sana’a University, were quick to make use of the charges with signs comparing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih with Iraq’s Chemical Ali (Ali Hassan al-Majid).

The marked escalation of violent attacks against anti-government protesters by the Salih regime moves Yemen closer toward a civil/ tribal war that will have serious regional implications. One prominent Yemen commentator has argued that the violent attacks by the Salih regime on anti-government protesters means that Salih’s days are numbered in what he has termed “Salih’s final dance.” [2]  This will likely prove to be true but it may be a long and bloody waltz.

Gauging Support for the Salih Regime

Despite the growing number of anti-government protesters and demonstrations across Yemen, President Salih still has considerable support among many of the northern based tribes, especially those whose territory encircles Sana’a. Gauging the level of support and the reasons behind it, which are varied and change from day to day, is extremely difficult. [3]

A large number of tribesmen, many of whom come from tribes within the Bakil tribal confederation, fear a Hashid-led takeover of the country. Hussein al-Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar, members of the wealthy and powerful al-Ahmar family that heads up the Hashid tribe and tribal confederation, have both been extremely public and vocal about their opposition to President Salih and their solidarity with anti-government demonstrators. However, the brothers, Hamid al-Ahmar in particular, are far from popular with many Yemenis. The brothers’ increasingly prominent role in the anti-government protests has done much to shore up support among many of the tribes that were admittedly already close to Salih and the Sanhaan (Salih’s tribe). It should also be noted that the head of the family and of the Hashid tribal confederation, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, has remained largely quiet on the subject of President Salih and the anti-government demonstrations.

President Salih’s announcement of a plan that would devolve presidential powers to the Yemeni Parliament and adopt a long promised policy of federalization by the end of 2011 has also helped increase support among some northern tribesmen who, like many Yemenis and even some members of the opposition, fear the chaos that might follow Salih’s immediate departure. On March 13 in Amran, the same town that earlier saw a mass rally against Salih led by Hussein al-Ahmar, thousands of tribesmen gathered to show their support for Salih and reportedly for his plan for reforms and devolution of power (Saba Net, March 13). It is almost certain that a number of those who attended Hussein al-Ahmar’s rally in Amran, where he called on Salih to step down, also attended the pro-Salih rally. During the war between Royalists and Republicans (1962-70) in northern Yemen, stories abounded about tribesmen who fought with Republican forces during the day and with the Royalists at night. [4]

The regime is also buying support with cash, promises of influence, jobs, and other “gifts” and favors. The Yemeni state cannot afford this, it cannot afford the newly made formal promises of jobs and additional subsidies that the regime has made, but Salih and many of those around him likely have substantial private funds with which they can buy support. Saudi Arabia, which has long funded and paid “salaries” to a large number of sheikhs and members of government, is also likely providing informal funds to help stabilize the regime.

So far, support among the President’s tribe, the Sanhaan, remains as solid as one would expect given the largess extended to many members of the tribe. However, Salih has lost one influential former ally and member of the Sanhaan tribe: Abdul Malik al-Saiyanni, a former defense minister, transportation minister, and head of the Military College. Abdul Malik al-Saiyanni has declared his support for the anti-government demonstrators and for their calls for Salih to step down. Al-Saiyanni is a senior member of the Saiyanni clan within the Sanhaan tribe and was a respected general in the Yemeni Army. His defection to the anti-government camp is significant.

Salih would not have survived for 32 years (a CIA analyst famously gave him six months when he initially took power in the Yemen Arab Republic [YAR] in 1978) if he were not a master of manipulating the complex array of tribes, clans, and external interests. His days as President of Yemen are almost certainly numbered, but he can be counted on to continue to try to manipulate the tribes to his advantage, even if it is only to ensure a secure exit for him and those around him. However, it is not just Salih and his extended family who have an interest in his presidency and continued rule. Salih’s long tenure as head of first the YAR and then the Republic of Yemen (ROY) has been guaranteed by a widespread patronage network. Many of the members of this network who have received and, in most cases, continue to receive benefits from it will not welcome the end of the Salih regime and the likely cessation of benefits. Unwinding this system, which must end regardless of the regime due to the state of the Yemeni economy, will also contribute to instability in Yemen.

While one must be careful not to overstate the level of support that Salih has, it is perhaps just as dangerous to underestimate that support. While loyalty to Salih is largely limited to some northern tribesmen, these groups are some of the country’s best armed, and many of them may think they have much to lose if the Salih regime ends.

An Outlier

Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar remains an important figure in northern Yemen who has received little attention during the unrest. While the general, who commands the 1st Armored Division and is overall commander of the Northwestern Military District, was greatly weakened both politically and militarily during the series of wars against the Houthis in northwest Yemen, he remains a powerful figure.

Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar is often inaccurately described as President Salih’s brother. He is from the same village (Bait al-Ahmar), but is not related to Salih’s family. President Salih and Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar have a long and contentious relationship. For many years, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar was regarded as the second most powerful man in Yemen and a likely contender for the presidency if something were to happen to Salih. Over the last eight years, Ali Muhsin’s position has been greatly weakened by his forces’ poor performance against the Houthis as well as by frequent charges of corruption and mismanagement. It has been suggested that at least the first round of fighting against the Houthis (2003) was instigated by members of the Salih regime who wanted to weaken Muhsin and his forces (Salih initially supported the Believing Youth Movement [a Houthi organization] as a counterbalance to the Salafi threat in the area). This is debatable, but the weakening of Muhsin’s position and the ensuing rivalry between him and Salih is not.

In an attempt to further weaken Ali Mushin and presumably lay the groundwork for a successor, President Salih saw to it that his son, Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Salih, rose to command the country’s best trained forces, the Republican Guard and the Special Forces, which are largely American trained and funded. The Salih regime, with the help of American military aid, has lavished funds on the Republican Guard and Special Forces. This has set up a natural rivalry between not only Ali Abdullah Salih and Ali Muhsin but also between Ali Muhsin and Ahmed Ali Salih. While Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar remains the titular commander of the Northwestern Military District, much of his power has been usurped by Ahmed Ali Salih and his Republican Guard, which participated in the last round of fighting against the Houthis (2009-10).

The tension between the Salih regime, if not Salih himself, and Ali Muhsin was confirmed by a leaked diplomatic cable from Riyadh which described how during the last war against the Houthis (2009-10), in which the Royal Saudi Air Force was involved, someone or some group within the Yemeni intelligence apparatus provided the Royal Saudi Air Force with the coordinates of Ali Mushin’s headquarters and claimed they were the coordinates for a Houthi target. The Saudi pilots became suspicious about the target and aborted the mission before dropping ordinance. [5] The willingness of at least part of the Salih regime to target a senior figure like Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar demonstrates that he is another of the abundant and important variables in the struggle for power in Yemen. Given the number of men and the hardware under his command as well as his ability to marshal irregular forces (Ali-Muhsin has close ties with ‘Afghan Arabs’ and Salafi inspired militants), he is surely being courted by all sides.

U.S. Policy in Yemen: Helping Ensure Chaos?

The dramatic changes that are sweeping through a large part of the Middle East have left many U.S. policy makers and intelligence officials scrambling for contingency and containment plans as old allies are toppled. Despite the billions of dollars that are spent annually on the mushrooming number of intelligence and security-oriented government agencies and the associated private companies who provide contractors and other services to many of these government agencies, the U.S. was caught very much off guard by the revolutionary fervor and the calls for just, democratic governments. It seems that this was the case in Yemen, despite years of eroding support for President Salih’s regime and abysmal and steadily deteriorating north/south relations.

On March 12, the influential cleric Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani fled to his village and clansmen, citing fears that President Salih, whom al-Zindani was formerly close to, was going to allow him to be extradited to the U.S. to face terrorism charges. Al-Zindani is on the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list of the United States for suspected ties to Osama bin Laden. His ties to Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network are debatable and beyond the scope of this article. However, for the last two years, al-Zindani has been a relatively outspoken critic of al-Qaeda and its tactics. More importantly, despite his rhetoric about the establishment of an Islamic regime, his has been a largely sensible voice during the unrest. He proposed and backed a reasonable six point plan for transition and elections that was not unlike what Salih is now proposing. Before the uprisings, al-Zindani was a respected figure within Yemen and his support for the anti-government protesters has likely won him additional support.

One can only hope that the talk of extraditing al-Zindani is just that. Al-Zindani, like almost every other important figure from northern Yemen, has powerful tribal backers who can and will protect him. Extraditing al-Zindani will do nothing to aid the “war on terror” but it will add yet another dimension to what is already likely to be a multi-dimensional conflict in Yemen.

Despite the increasing possibility of civil/ tribal war, U.S. policy in Yemen remains narrowly focused on efforts to combat al-Qaeda, just as it has been for much of the last five years. Far more pressing concerns like impending water shortages, falling petroleum production, government corruption, severe economic problems, lack of investment and innovation in the agriculture sector, electoral reform, and north/ south relations have received little attention. Yet all of these problems, most of which require multi-year if not decade-long plans, if not addressed, will ensure an environment in which chaos reigns and one in which Salafi inspired militants are able to find many willing recruits. [6]

The U.S. State Department appears to have been slow to recognize the validity of the opposition’s demands. While it has now publicly condemned the violence and called for dialogue, many Yemenis view President Salih as the U.S.’s man in Yemen. This is a dangerous perception given that the United States is going to have to work with whatever government comes next. Anti-government protesters camped out in the streets around Sana’a University are well aware of which country provides equipment and training for the Central Security Service. The perception of the U.S. as a backer of the regime was certainly reinforced by the abundance of spent gas canisters labeled with “Made in the USA.”


The escalation of attacks against anti-government protesters in Yemen by the Salih regime only moves the country closer to war. Even with the use of all of its military resources, the Salih regime could only ever hope to control a small portion of Yemen. Salih’s proposal for a devolution of power to the parliament combined with federalization and increased local governmental control is a good start. However, Salih’s credibility and reputation as a master of Machiavellian maneuvering mean that any plan in which he remains even the ‘titular’ head of government during the transition is unlikely to satisfy anti-government protesters anywhere in the country, most especially in the south. The increasing levels of violence against demonstrators have largely undermined what little credibility the regime had.

Despite its arguably waning influence in the region, the U.S. can still bring a great deal of pressure to bear on the Salih regime. Given the large number of complex interests and groups in Yemen, it is unlikely that the transition to a new government will be smooth, but the continuation of the current regime more or less guarantees a chaotic and violent future for Yemen. If the people of Yemen are not to face a dystopian future, the United States and the international community must do all they can to foster as smooth a transition as possible so that the many critical issues that Yemen faces can begin to be addressed in a practical and nuanced manner. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, who admittedly has one of the toughest posts in the Foreign Service, clearly recognizes the need for Yemen to move beyond the current impasse as quickly as possible. In a recent press conference, he noted, what so few have noted, the importance and danger of global rises in commodity costs. [7] Rising food prices combined with an already moribund economy and a weak currency mean that even with the quick implementation of reforms and the establishment of a clean and efficient government, Yemen likely faces high levels of unrest.


1. The author spoke with a number of doctors who confirmed reports of convulsions and intermittent diaphragmatic paralysis among patients. The author also saw a number of different types of spent gas cartridges and grenades, some manufactured by Wyoming based Defense Technology—which according to its website only produces grenades, canisters, and cartridges with OC, CN, and CS gas and aerosols. It should be noted that the Yemeni Army has an abysmal to nonexistent inventory control system so a mistake could have been made in terms of what canisters and which agents were distributed to security forces.

2. See: Gregory D. Johnsen, https://bigthink.com/blogs/waq-al-waq.

3. Continued support for Salih among many of the tribes and clans is based on long complex histories of political and even personal interaction. For example, among the Hamdan tribe, whose territory abuts Sana’a, the Ghashmi clan will likely take into account one of its forebears, Colonel Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi’s, President of the YAR 1977-78 (assassinated 1978), relationship with Salih and Salih’s relationship with his heirs.

4. For a highly readable firsthand account of the Royalist/Republican war see: D.A. Schmidt, Yemen: The Unknown War, 1968. Also see: Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen, 2001.


6. For a thorough and contextualized look at some of the problems facing Yemen as well as ‘terrorist’ threats see: Isa Blumi, Chaos in Yemen: Societal Collapse and the New Authoritarianism, 2010.

7. https://yemen.usembassy.gov/fpc.html.

Michael Horton is a Senior Analyst for Arabian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation where he specializes on Yemen and the Horn of Africa. He also writes for Jane’s Intelligence Review, Intelligence Digest, Islamic Affairs Analyst, and the Christian Science Monitor. Mr. Horton studied Middle East History and Economics at the American University of Cairo and Arabic at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies in Yemen. Michael frequently travels to Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia.