The Jihadis and the Cause of South Yemen: A Profile of Tariq al-Fadhli

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 35

A protester draped with the flag of South Yemen stands among supporters of the Southern Movement

Earlier this year Tariq al-Fadhli, the prominent jihadist leader from South Yemen, broke his 15 year alliance with the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Fadhli, who was a member of the anti-Soviet Mujahideen movement in Afghanistan, is often described as the founder of the jihadi movement in Yemen. His break with the government was reported in the mainstream Arab and Yemeni media but was also noted on pro-jihadist websites (, April 18). Al-Fadhli’s new position provided momentum to the Southern Movement (SM) and its struggle for secession and he soon became a leading figure in the alliance.

Tariq al-Fadhli’s father, Nasir bin Abdullah al-Fadhli, was the leader of the powerful al-Fadhil tribe and a sultan who owned and ruled wide areas of the southern province of Abyan. After the British pulled out of South Yemen in 1967, the elder al-Fadhli lost his lands and power to the new rulers of South Yemen, the Marxists of the Yemen Socialist Party (Al-Hizb al-Ishtiraki al-Yamani – YSP). Tariq’s family moved to Saudi Arabia where he grew up. In the late 1980s, he abandoned his education and joined the mujahideen movement in Afghanistan fighting against the Soviet forces (Yemen-Sound, July 29).

Since joining the SM, al-Fadhli has presented himself as a nationalist from the south calling for the rights of South Yemenis. The terminology he uses in his statements and speeches is more patriotic than Islamist. He talks about his time in Afghanistan as something from the past. About a month after he joined the SM, al-Fadhli was interviewed by a pan-Arab daily. In response to a question about his experience in Afghanistan, he stated, “You are talking about something from 20 years ago… We now live on our lands and have no links with Afghanistan. Let anyone who accuses us of terror present his accusation in front of the whole world and the international community. I will be ready to take responsibility if anything was proven against me. Otherwise those who accuse me should be held responsible… We [in South Yemen] have been invaded 15 years ago and we are under a vicious occupation. So we are busy with our cause and we do not look at any other cause in the world. We want our independence and to put an end to this occupation” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 14).

On the same day al-Fadhli’s interview was published, the regional organization of al-Qaeda declared its support for the people of South Yemen. In an audiotape released on the internet, Nasir Abdul Kareem al-Wahayshi (a.k.a. Abu Basir), leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, expressed his sympathy with the people of the southern provinces and their attempt to defend themselves against their “oppression.” Al-Fadhli declared that what the people of the South need is not a call for secession but a call for ending the oppression. “What is happening in Lahaj, Dhali, Abyan and Hadramaut and the other southern provinces cannot be approved. We have to support and help [the southerners],” said al-Wahayshi. He went on to address the South Yemenis, promising retaliation. “The oppression against you will not pass without punishment… the killing of Muslims in the streets is an unjustified major crime” (, May 14).

Al-Fadhli and Bin Laden

In his book Da’wat al-muqawamah al-islamiyyah al-‘alamiyyah (The Call of the Global Islamic Resistance), Syrian jihad strategist Abu Musa’ab al-Suri indicated Osama bin Laden intended to initiate a major jihadist movement in southern Yemen, taking advantage of the internal rivalries of the YSP leaders. According to al-Suri, Tariq al-Fadhli was chosen and trained by Bin Laden to practice jihad in Yemen, but President Saleh managed to convince him to join the government (, September 16). Al-Fadhli denies any special relationship with Bin Laden. “Osama was not as famous at that time [in 1980s Afghanistan] as he is now. We were with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom many Arabs were comfortable to fight with. I was in an area west of Kabul called Maidan Warda. I did not meet Bin Laden till the last battle of Jalalabad and only for short and staggering times. My relationship with him was like any other one in the field, very normal with nothing special” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 14).

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, al-Fadhli returned to Saudi Arabia and then to North Yemen. When the unification of Yemen was declared in 1990, al-Fadhli saw his socialist enemies becoming partners in the power structure. The YSP accused him of being behind the assassination of one of their leaders. He was arrested after the attacks on two hotels in Aden where American soldiers participating in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia were staying. Al Fadhli denies any involvement in the attacks or the assassination. He spent three years in jail on the charges.

The Civil War

By the time the fourth anniversary of unification arrived, relations between President Saleh and the YSP were at their worst. The YSP leaders waged a war in the south calling for secession. They accused the north and president Saleh of dominating the government. Upset by Saleh’s support for Iraqi president Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia supported the South. [1]

President Saleh turned to the YSP’s ideological enemies, the jihadis, for help. Who else but Tariq al-Fadhli could provide the best assistance against the socialists? According to al-Fadhli’s account, he was released at 2:30 in the morning and asked to join the fight immediately (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 14). The role of the jihadis led by al-Fadhli was vital in winning the war for the north (see Terrorism Monitor, July 13, 2006). Al-Fadhli was then rewarded by becoming a senior member of President Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (al-Mo’tamar al-Sha’by al-‘Am). He also got part of his father’s lands back (, May 14).

Yemen has been, and will always be, a country of symbolic importance for the Islamists, especially its southern part. The family of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden is originally from Hadramaut province in South Yemen and he once aimed to eventually settle there. Yemen is also mentioned in an apocryphal hadith as a place for believers to go when there is a threat. Aden-Abyan is specifically mentioned in the hadith as the place where an army of 12,000 men will arise to fight for the religion of Allah in the last days (see Terrorism Monitor, February 23, 2006; May 4, 2006; July 13, 2006). Yemen is also of crucial strategic importance. Its geographic location places it close to vital shipping lanes, as well as Sudan, Somalia and Saudi Arabia, countries of high interest for al-Qaeda.

The unification of Yemen denied jihadis the battle they wanted to fight—a pure battle against the deteriorating pro-Soviet YSP, a scenario that would be similar to Afghanistan. When the 1994 civil war broke out, they fought for Saleh against the YSP, whom they considered to be unbelievers.

The defeat of the south in 1994 did not end the secessionist cause of its people. Frustration led to the emergence of the SM, formed by secular groups and led by the YSP. The deterioration in south Yemen has reached a point where ideological enemies have put their differences behind them for a common cause. Tariq al-Fadhli became a leading figure in the SM and recognized the former president of South Yemen, Ali Salem Al-Beedh, as the legitimate leader of the south Yemeni people. Al-Fadhli also claimed that he continues to maintain his influence over the jihadis, but tries to separate this role from al-Qaeda, whose existence postdates the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. “It is impossible that I let [the jihadists] down. Al-Qaeda is new. These are jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and I was with them fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. I have strong relations with all of the jihadists in the north and the south and everywhere, but not with al-Qaeda” (, May 14). President Saleh’s old tactic of manipulating competing groups seems to be of diminishing value. In his last meeting with President Saleh, al-Fadhli refused to cooperate with the government on the jihadi issue or the southern issue.

The situation in the south is of interest to al-Qaeda as well. After the declaration of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (formed by the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the organization), the 33-year-old al-Wahayshi emerged as the leader of the new organization. His statement expressing support for South Yemen came from a man who knows the area and its people. Like al-Fadhli, al-Wahayshi comes from the southern province of Abyan. The link between al-Fadhli’s and al-Wahayshi’s support for the people of the south has not been proven yet, but the pro-government media has already put both men in one basket as leaders of al-Qaeda (Althawra, October 17). With his senior position among jihadis and tribesmen, al-Fadhli’s loyalties and policies will play an important role in shaping the future of South Yemen.


1. See Harb al-Yamen 1994 al-Asbab wal Nata’ij (The Yemen War: The Causes and Effects), Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1995.

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