The Soviet Roots of Islamic Militancy in Yemen

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 7

“Possibilities for the Third World War would have greatly increased if we had not taken South Yemen into our hands.” These words of former Soviet Defense Minister Marshall Ustinov were repeated constantly throughout the 1970s by Soviet military consultants in Aden, underscoring the importance of this Third World country in Soviet global international policies. The founder of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), Abdel Fattah Ismail, seized power in South Yemen in 1968, giving the Soviets an outstanding opportunity to exert their presence in this strategically important region. Using military facilities left by Great Britain, the Soviet Union was well positioned to influence political developments in the Persian Gulf. South Yemen became the major Soviet staging point for infiltration into Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. In the 1970s and 1980s there were at least 1,000 active Soviet military personnel in South Yemen, together with some 3,000 Cuban advisors in militia and terrorist training camps, as well as scores of East Germans engaged in training Yemeni internal security forces.

Ironically, Yemen, a poor country located at the south end of the Arabian Peninsula, is still playing an important role in international affairs. The threat to international peace and world democracy from al-Qaeda and its head, Osama bin Laden, has a Yemeni background. Bin Laden was born into a Yemenite family of fifty-eight children. His father came from the province of Hadramawt, in southeast Yemen. His father-in-law, Ahmad Abdulfattah Assadah, who married his daughter to bin Laden four years ago, lives in this province. [1] The province is believed to be the most religious part of Yemen; the number of mosques in the Hadramawt town of Tarim alone exceeds the number of mosques in the whole of Saudi Arabia. It is a province in which the mixture of tribal and Islamic traditions determines the social life of its inhabitants. A young Hadrami must follow the discipline of the tribe, the orders of local `ulema and mullahs, and the directions of tribal elders, from the day of his birth.

Yemeni journalist Hassan Al-Zaidi has characterized Yemeni tribal life as dominated by the “tribe’s joint liability and common culture of individuals, strong tribal allegiance, coupled with insufficient social and economic modernization.” Mohamed Abdul Malik Al-Motwakel sees these tribes as “an effective and essential corporation.” [2]

Yemeni tribes live in a permanent state of war with other tribes and central governing authorities. “The tribes have played major and decisive roles in political conflicts in Yemen. [T]hrough involvement in these conflicts, [the tribes have] acquired a lot of weapons and still possess them today. In addition, they have gained combat experience from their practical involvement. The tribes still retain a strong military capability and a trained people’s army, which could be used and benefited from by any authority.” [3] Such a permanent state of war forces tribesmen to learn the use of guns from childhood, making them perfect soldiers in any militant organization if they choose to leave their tribe. And they do leave their tribes and their country and go abroad–mostly to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to earn money for their families back home. At least 2 million Yemenites live in the Saudi Arabia, with the overwhelming majority surviving either as second class Saudi citizens or without any citizenship at all, a situation that creates fertile hunting grounds for al-Qaeda’s recruiters. According to the Russian on-line publication Temy Dnya, Many members of al-Qaeda are natives of Yemen, or have lived there for a long time. [4] The reason for joining al-Qaeda is almost always explained by extremely religious reasons. Frequently, however, it is the simple desire to earn a good living. Yemen is among ten poorest countries of the world, and bin Laden is very generous to new recruits. [5]

To better understand why some [Yemeni] regions, mainly Ma’rib, Al-Jouf and Shabwah, are a safe haven for terrorists to get their training, we must look back to the Soviet era. [6] During the Cold War, the Soviets and their satellites from East Germany and Cuba established a network of training facilities in South Yemen for members of national liberation movements from Palestine, Somalia, Oman and some other Arab countries. For example, Cuban instructors trained members of the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman in a training camp located in the region of Shabwah. The Shabwah town of El-Geida served as the major hub for the Front. A training base, arms and ammunition storage facilities and a large hospital were built for the Front’s fighters, as well as housing facilities for Omani refugees. Cuban instructors and medical staffers came to live and work in El-Geida for many years. The Front’s political officers studied there with help from a Soviet faculty, as well as in party schools in the Hadramawt towns of Mukalla and Aden, while security personnel received training from Eastern German instructors. South Yemen also became the base of Soviet support for other organizations of Marxist persuasion–the Saudi Communist Party and the Bahrain Liberation Front–all involved in destabilizing activities in the region.

Soviet, German and Cuban tutors could not teach members of national liberation movements how to handle economic problems in their countries. But they trained them well in organizing one-party ruling systems, showing them how to control the mass media and spread party ideology into all areas of a nation’s spiritual life. Members of national liberation movements were indoctrinated by Soviet communist ideology, which was the major anti-American and anti-democratic force of that time.

All terrorist training facilities formally belonged to the Yemen Socialist Party, which received Soviet support until 1987. During almost twenty years of Soviet presence in South Yemen, Soviet tutors trained tens of thousands of military, special services and ideological experts–all members of the YSP. Despite becoming the opposition party after the unification of Yemen in 1990, the YSP may have kept the property of the training facilities in the remote areas mentioned above. More importantly, however, experts from the party may have found new employers among al-Qaeda’s leaders. Specialized knowledge and experience of Soviet, German and Cuban state military and security agencies make such individuals very valuable to the terrorist organizations. Their ability, among other things, to hide from surveillance, conduct conspiracy work, produce and plant explosives, fight police and military units is augmented by the anti-American indoctrination they received from the Soviets. Former YSP experts believe the United States to be their main enemy, and this anti-Americanism makes them very comparable with militant Islamists of al-Qaeda and other Arab terrorist organizations.

Since the events of September 11, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih has promoted security cooperation between the United States and Yemen in fighting terrorism. However, Yemeni opposition groups, such as the YSP and fundamentalists from the opposition Islamic party Islah (Coalition for Reform), have not made things easy for him. On September 20, 2001, the YSP party mouthpiece, Ath-Thawri Weekly, published editorial comments on al-Qaeda’s attacks in New York and Washington, saying, This will force Washington to study the environment incubating terrorism and define its roots and to come forward with a comprehensive economic, developmental and political project to help those peoples come out from their crisis and solve their compound problems if the U.S. does not change its foreign policy and has a parallel and just vision towards what is going on in the region and the world, the situation would lead not only to threaten the American interests but rather provoke the Arab regimes themselves. [7] Reports in the Yemeni press also emerged claiming that YSP elements received para-military training at some of Osama bin Laden’s camps and that these YSP people were also involved in the bombing of the two U.S. embassies. [8]

Although U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull believes that “Yemen is a partner in the war against terrorism, [9] there are good reasons to believe that the country remains a safe haven for radical elements opposed to the United States. This motherland of Osama bin Laden, with its rugged landscape and remote regions, provides shelter for terrorists. Yemeni tribesmen, well educated as soldiers and often traveling abroad to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, may be prime mercenaries for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The long presence of Soviet, East German and Cuban tutors from military, secret service and ideological agencies helped the YSP educate thousands in the subversive arts. These experts may find new employment as al-Qaeda recruitment officers, transferring their knowledge and experience from state agencies to new generations of Islamic terrorists.



2. The Tribe and the State in Yemen, by Hassan Al-Zaidi, Yemen Times, Issue: (724), Volume 13, March 29-31, 2004.

3. Ibid.


5. Deutsche Welle, March 14, 2003.

6. Hassan Al-Zaidi, op. cit.