U.S.-Yemen Relations and the War on Terror: A Portrait of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 7

Colonel Ali Abdullah Salih became president of North Yemen in 1978 and then of the Republic of Yemen after unification of the North with the former Marxist South in 1990. From 1978 through the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Salih sought to gain leverage for his small nation by playing more powerful countries–including the United States–against one another. Although he pursued this strategy brilliantly at first, Salih’s plans backfired in 1990-91. Since that time he has concentrated on courting the United States, instead of trying to counterbalance its influence using other allies. This effort has been especially pronounced since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor and the events of September 11, 2001, which marked the beginning of Salih’s close cooperation with the United States. Despite a not altogether smooth relationship, Salih’s cooperative attitude is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

Salih came to power at a time when North Yemen faced not only a threat from Soviet-backed South Yemen, but also contentious relations with neighboring Saudi Arabia. Though Salih sought American military support against the South, he received less than he hoped for, as the United States tried to assuage Riyadh’s concerns about populous but poor North Yemen potentially becoming a threat to the oil kingdom. So, in one of the more bizarre episodes of the Cold War, Salih asked for–and received–arms from Moscow, using primarily Soviet-supplied weapons to quell a Marxist insurgency supported by Soviet-backed South Yemen.

The end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the Third World allowed for the 1990 merger between North and South Yemen, Salih becoming the predominant leader. But the end of the Cold War also eliminated Moscow as a source of support against American-backed Saudi Arabia, which had opposed Yemeni unification. It was the desire to replace the USSR with another powerful ally against Saudi Arabia that explains Salih’s tilt toward Iraq before and during the crisis over Kuwait. Had a stalemate ensued (as Salih may have anticipated), Salih would have been in a position to balance Washington/Riyadh against Baghdad just as he had previously done with Washington/Riyadh and Moscow. The plan collapsed, however, with Washington and Riyadh cutting off assistance and isolating Yemen, while a defeated Iraq was in no position to help it.

Salih’s mighty efforts to restore normal relations with Washington and Riyadh after this episode were unsuccessful at first. In mid-1994, some of the southern leadership attempted to secede and reestablish the South’s independence; Saudi Arabia supported the effort, the United States did not. A few weeks later, Salih’s army overran the South, ending the attempted secession with the help of northern tribesmen and Islamists.[1] It was from this point that Yemeni-American ties slowly began to improve. (Yemen’s relations with the Kingdom also improved when a Saudi-Yemen border agreement was finally signed in 2000.)

In the late 1990s, U.S. naval vessels began refueling in Aden, southern Yemen’s largest city, which had first served as a port for the British and later the Soviet navy. A suicide attack launched against the USS Cole in October of 2000, apparently orchestrated by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda affiliates, was claimed by the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. The local group cited resentment of Northern dominance established over the South as a result of the 1994 civil war as their prime motivation.[2] Though Yemen responded more cooperatively to the FBI investigation of the USS Cole attack than the Saudi government had following the bombing of the Al-Khobar towers, frictions developed when literally hundreds of U.S. government officials descended on Aden. Not only Yemenis, but also the then U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, complained of their intrusiveness.[3]

With the investigation of September 11, it became increasingly clear that many Islamic terrorists came from and/or operated out of Yemen. Tribesmen, who control parts of the country not under the authority of the central government, sometimes provide shelter to these individuals for their own purposes. The tribes around Ma’rib (a remote area east of Sana’a, near the desert border with the Kingdom) have long accepted support against the government from outsiders, including Marxist South Yemen, Ba’athist Iraq, conservative Saudi Arabia, and most recently, radical elements linked to al-Qaeda. The fact that the Yemeni army consists largely of insufficiently trained and equipped tribesmen complicates the situation further, as soldiers are often unwilling to fire upon other tribesmen and thus unleash more generalized tribal warfare. The typical government response to problematic tribes has been to attempt to meet some (if not all) of their demands. This reaction, unfortunately, has only encouraged tribes to continue seeking outside support, as doing so appeared to elicit a positive response from the Yemeni government.

Frustrated with the situation in Yemen, Washington reportedly contemplated unilateral military action inside Yemen against al-Qaeda in September 2002.[4] Such action would have been extremely unpopular in Yemen, likely resulting in increasingly anti-American sentiment within the Yemeni public. However, Salih also felt threatened by the rising strength of Islamists within Yemen and decided to cooperate more fully with the United States against them, thereby curtailing unilateral American intervention.

Small numbers of American troops have been providing training and support to Yemeni armed forces. In one spectacular example of joint cooperation, the Yemeni government gave its approval for the November 2002 American missile attack on an automobile carrying six Yemeni terrorists on an isolated stretch of highway. Although there was some angry reaction to this within Yemen, it was neither widespread nor long lasting.[5] When asked if Yemen would allow the United States to launch similar missile strikes, senior Salih adviser and former Yemeni Prime Minister Dr. Abd Al-Karim Al-Iryani unhesitatingly responded, “Sure.”[6]

Such quiet Yemen-U.S. cooperation has paid off: As of March 2004, there had been no terrorist attacks in Yemen for about two years.[7] There remain, however, important differences in the Yemeni and American approaches to terrorism. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz recently stated that, “There are some things that we would like in terms of more aggressive detention of some of the terrorists that they hold and better access to some of them.”[8] The United States considered particularly risky the amnesty in 2003 of a number of prisoners who had renounced terrorism. Yemeni officials justified the release by pointing out that the men had been put into the custody of their families, who would lose their homes or businesses if terrorist activities were resumed. It is still too early to tell whether or not this program will work.[9]

The principal difference between the Yemeni and American approaches to the war on terrorism was revealed in an exchange between Presidents Salih and Bush during a visit by the former to Washington in late 2001. Salih reportedly told Bush an Arab proverb: “If you put a cat into a cage, it can turn into a lion.” Bush’s response was: “This cat has rabies. The only way to cure the cat is to cut off its head.”[10]

Notwithstanding a desire for even more cooperation, Washington seems obviously pleased at Salih’s cooperation with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts thus far. For his part, Salih reaps not only the benefits of combating Islamic elements in Yemen (who are as much a threat to him as to the United States), but his cooperation serves four other purposes besides. First, Yemen’s willingness to work with the United States has, for the first time ever, resulted in Washington favoring Yemen over Saudi Arabia in an issue of great importance to the United States. Second, increased Yemen-American cooperation in the war on terrorism has been accompanied by decreased U.S. interest in the lack of progress toward democratization in Yemen, despite Salih’s promises to the contrary. Third, the help Salih receives from the United States to defeat Islamic terrorists also helps preserve his autocratic rule. Fourth, his cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism reduces the prospect of unilateral American military action in Yemen, which could well undermine Salih’s rule. Salih’s ability to patch up relations with the United States demonstrates once again this astute politician’s capacity for playing his hand right–for his own benefit.


1. Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi, ed., The Yemeni War of 1994 (Saqi Books/The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, 1995).

2. Sheila Carapico, “Yemen and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army,” MERIP Middle East Report Online, October 18, 2000, (www.merip.org/mero/mero101800.html).

3. Danna Harman, “Yemen Slowly Warms to US,” Christian Science Monitor/csmonitor.com, February 13, 2003, (www.csmonitor.com/2002/0213/p06s01-wome.html).

4. Robin Allen, Farhan Bokhari, and Mark Huband, “US ‘Has Been Ready for Action inside Yemen,’” Financial Times, September 19, 2002, p 8.

5. Ibid.

6. Nora Boustany, “Yemeni Proclaims His Nation’s Solidarity with US in Fight against Terrorism,” Washington Post, November 27, 2002, p. A13.

7. Eric Westervelt, “Efforts of Yemen in the War on Terror,” Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, March 21, 2004.

8. Ibid.

9. Jonathan Schanzer, “Yemen’s al-Qaeda Amnesty: Revolving Door or Evolving Strategy?” Policywatch #808, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 25, 2003.

10. Patrick E. Tyler, “Yemen, an Uneasy Ally, Proves Adept at Playing Off Old Rivals,” New York Times, December 19, 2002, p. A1.