Two parallel, but distinct challenges to central authority underline how Yemen will take some time to shake off its reputation as a cradle of Islamist militancy. One is a resurgence of the rebellion of Shi’ite tribesmen following the cleric Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the second challenge is the persistent flicker of the al-Qaeda flame. Yet the common factor between them is a growing disaffection with the perceived failings of the government and its close alliance with U.S. That and what appears increasingly to be a slide towards tribal/religious-inspired vehemence that threatens to morph into a jihad.
On March 19, government forces killed three followers of the deceased rebel Shi’ite cleric Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi in the province of Sa’ada in northern Yemen 240 km north of the capital Sana’a. This was the first spark in a recrudescence of violence since al-Houthi’s abortive 10-week uprising last June, which left over 400 dead. The present violence is believed to be directed by al-Houthi’s father, also called Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and is variously attributed to al-Houthi’s reneging on a ‘good conduct’ deal or government attempts to disarm his followers of their heavy weapons. On March 28 came the rebel response, with an attack on a police patrol in Suq al-Anad killing seven. This incident in turn sparked of a series of confrontations, which by mid April had accounted for over 250 deaths on both sides. The conflict took the form of a full-blown insurgency as government troops were forced to launch heavy artillery attacks on the rebel mountain strongholds in Nushur, al-Shafia and Razamat, in addition to putting down flashpoints south of the epicenter in the region of Amran.
This second round of hostilities has long-term potential for disruption. Last summer’s fighting ended in a doomed final stand in a mountain stronghold. This latest aggression is taking the form of urban warfare, waged with increasing boldness. On April 23 the Yemen Times reported that a suspected member of the Kata’ib Badr militias (a division of the al-Shabab al-Mu’min or ‘Believing Youth’ movement formed by Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi) hurled a bomb at the motorcade of a military leader in central Sana’a [http://yementimes.com]. It is also powered by resentment at Sana’a’s failure to fully honor the pledge to release over 500 followers of al-Houthi, left pending the cessation of hostilities.
The violence also appears to be rooting itself deeper ideologically. An attempt at mediation via the good offices of Muslim scholars and tribal chieftains, reported by the state SABA news agency [www.sabanews.net], failed to persuade the rebels to surrender, and according to the Yemen Times, tribal sources dismissed the possibility that mediations could bring fighting to an end since the rebels had effectively been “brainwashed” by al-Houthi [http://yementimes.com].
What might have started as much as a tribal rebellion against encroaching central authority as a pietistic movement, is gaining much of its appeal from its anti-US sloganeering. The potent mix of tribal independence and religion also threatens to gain currency beyond al-Houthi’s Zaydi Shi’ite sect, since the call combines distaste for the pro-U.S. policy of the government with a call for the implementation of Islamic law. Sana’a is countering this with imputations of Iranian Shi’ite infiltration, notably in the funding of salaries of up to USD 200 per month of militants in the al-Shabab al-Mu’min movement from which most of the rebel foot soldiers are drawn.
Yemen is also bracing itself for a violent reaction from Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaeda, following the February/March trial of eight suspected al-Qaeda members who admitted to planning attacks on Western institutions in the capital, and under pressure from extradition agreements with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On March 28 Yemen handed Saudi Arabia 25 suspects and Riyadh repatriated eight Yemeni nationals wanted for security violations. The UAE is expected to extradite seven Yemeni nationals suspected of planning further attacks in Yemen.
Prime Minister Abd al-Qadir Bajammal’s warnings against some 4,000 underground Islamic extremist schools (said to minister to 330,000 students) which threaten to “bring a disaster to Yemen and this generation” have soured the climate and provoked condemnation of the government from religious officials.
Under such pressures U.S. State Department officials are sensitive to the exposure of U.S. citizens to attacks. On April 8, a travel advisory was issued and non-essential diplomatic personnel authorized to leave the country, followed by four days of closure of the embassy. While attacks on foreigners have not yet materialized, one reminder that the culture of violent jihad retains its appeal came from the April 23 trial of an Islamist Imam who murdered a senior opposition leader. The cleric objected to the capital sentence as unfair, seeing as he only killed in the cause of jihad against apostates and infidels.