Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih appears to have weathered the worst of his terrorist problem. Indeed, with no al-Qaeda related incidents in two years, Salih’s previously suspect security credentials are beginning to look brighter. A high-profile visit from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder scheduled for March, following a February trip by the Chairman of the U.S. National Democratic Institute Kenneth Walk to launch the NDI’s regional bureau in Yemen, only serves to enhance this image. Not least, Salih’s government is also being praised for developing a new approach to the war on terrorism based on dialogue, even as it seeks to distance itself from men long suspected of supporting the al-Qaeda network.
There have been some surprises, though: last August during the trial of five men accused of plotting the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole when their lawyer presented a document in court that alleged a government role in facilitating the attack. The document took the form of an official letter by former Interior Minister Hussein Arab instructing security authorities to give “safe passage to Sheik Mohammed Omar al-Harazi with three bodyguards without being searched or intercepted. All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his missions.” In the letter, Arab said the order was valid from April 2000 until the end of 2000. Harazi is one of the names used by Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the sixth defendant and the alleged mastermind of the suicide attack that killed 17 U.S. sailors aboard the ship.
It was not immediately clear how the defense obtained a copy of the letter, but significantly enough it was considered authentic by the court and accepted as evidence in the trial. Its meaning was not lost on observers. “This document confirms that there is a breach in the Yemeni security system. This system has been infiltrated for a long time by terrorist elements, because of old relations,” political analyst Mohammed al-Sabri told The Associated Press. Another analyst, Jamal Amer, said al-Nashiri’s possession of such a letter “proves that there is a link between security authorities and these groups.”  Such observations also appeared to confirm suspicions of U.S. investigators of the Cole bombing, who wanted to interrogate upper echelons of the Yemeni regime but who were blocked from doing so by Hussein Arab, among others. The observations also shed light on the ability of al-Qaeda operatives to obtain Yemeni identification documents and travel papers – both of which are issued by the interior ministry.
Even as Salih’s government remained silent over the letter which implicated the former minister in terrorism, an Internet newspaper run by the president’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) launched a broadside against another former high official. On December 30 last year, the GPC’s al-Motamar newspaper [www.almotamar.net] claimed that that the military wing of the al-Iman University received instructions to prepare for acts of anarchy, looting, and to close roads to civilians as part of a plan to create chaos and sedition in Yemen. Al-Motamar.net quoted what it called “informed sources” who also described the university as a “nest for terrorism.” The story was a thinly disguised attack on Sheikh Abdel-Majid al-Zindani, President of al-Iman University and a member of the Shura Council of the opposition Islah Party, who has long been accused by the U.S. of helping to bankroll al-Qaeda. In fact, the al-Motamar story seemed to echo the very words of former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Edmund Hull who last March told a local newspaper that “[W]e are worried about the activities of al-Iman University; we aim to stop the foreign funds to al-Zindani so as to stop his fund for the university and the activities that promote terrorism and finance terrorism.” 
Al-Iman University filed a lawsuit against al-Motamar’s editor-in-chief Abdullah al-Hadrami in January, but the report has been enough to demonstrate that Zindani no longer enjoys official favor. He seems to understand that as well, having – for the second time in less than a year – sought the government’s help in denying other charges laid against him by the U.S. government. In January, just weeks after the al-Motamar story, Zindani demanded that the Yemeni government sue the U.S. at the International Court of Justice for its accusations against him of supporting and financing terrorism. Those allegations were made public on February 28, 2004 when the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Zindani had been added to the U.S. government’s list of people suspected of supporting terrorist activities. The U.S. Treasury Department described Zindani as a “loyalist” to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and said he “has a long history of working with bin Laden, notably serving as one of his spiritual leaders.” It also said that Zindani actively recruited for al-Qaeda’s terrorist training camps and played a role in the purchase of weapons for al-Qaeda and other terrorists. Soon after, the UN Security Council added Zindani’s name to its list of terrorist financiers. At the time, Zindani unsuccessfully petitioned the Yemeni government to ask the UN Security Council for another debate of the resolution which was taken in the absence of Yemen’s representative – a significant absence in and of itself.
Zindani’s pleas for help from the Yemeni government are clearly designed to evince sympathy among his own Islamist followers and to stir their ire against Salih. But the Yemeni president seems to have pre-empted such moves by taking a relatively benign approach against potential rank and file recruits to al-Qaeda. To be sure, the Yemeni president has not been hesitant to order military action against hardened extremists when necessary – as he did in the November 2002 assassination of Ali Qaed Sinan al-Harthi, believed by U.S. and Yemeni authorities to be a close friend of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s key operative in Yemen. In fact, at the time, there were concerns that the Harthi assassination may have made Yemen’s government more of a target for al-Qaeda than it already was, due to Salih’s growing cooperation with the U.S. In addition to his willingness to liquidate al-Qaeda supporters, Salih has also shown a knack for using gentler weapons on them, too, and with felicitous effects.
Perhaps the most interesting of these weapons is a Yemeni qadi, or religious judge, named Humud al-Hattar, who was named by Salih as “chairman of the committee for religious dialogue with Al-Qaeda supporters in Yemen” in August 2002. In an interview with the Arabic al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper last December, Hattar said Salih summoned a group of senior Yemeni ulema – including Hattar – for a private meeting.  In this meeting, which was attended by senior state officials, there was a discussion of the idea of dialogue with the young people who returned from Afghanistan and others who have ideological convictions that are contrary to the notions held by Muslim ulema in general. According to Hattar, Salih raised the problem saying: “We have a group of young people who hold dangerous beliefs. Those people have not committed any crime, but if we leave them on their own, they could cause great harm to themselves and to the country. We need to talk to them.”
Hattar said the group launched the dialogue on September 5, 2002 and has conducted four rounds since then. “We believe that we have eliminated 90 percent of the ideology that had formed the basis for terrorist operations in Yemen,” Hattar told al-Quds al-Arabi. As for evaluating the work of the committee, he said, “[W]e cannot assess ourselves, but we will give others a chance to speak about the work of this committee and what it has achieved.” In his view, “many political analysts and others who follow Yemeni affairs and the issues of security and terrorism worldwide say that the committee succeeded in taking more steps toward the achievement of security and stability. Since late December 2002 and until now, there has been no significant terrorist incident in Yemen.”
Hattar’s methods have doubtless caused a stir, leading him to a five-day visit to France at the invitation of the French government. Hattar told the official Saba news agency that he would conduct an interview with French radio concerning Yemen’s experience in dialogue with militants, and that he would also hold talks with French officials in the foreign, interior, and justice ministries, as well as at the Arab Institute and the Council of French Muslims.  While winning friends abroad always helps, the general point of Salih’s undertaking with Hattar is to comply with the demands of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism without being seen by his own people as one of Washington’s henchmen. Whether Salih actually intends to go after and eventually uproot alleged supporters of the al-Qaeda network such as Hussein Arab or Abdul Mujeed al-Zindani remains to be seen. But Salih knows that any such job will be much easier to undertake if the ground around such men is softened by people like the loquacious Qadi Hattar, chairman of the committee for religious dialogue with al-Qaeda supporters in Yemen.
Eric Watkins, PhD is the first Westerner ever allowed to reside in Yemen as a foreign correspondent. He lived in the country from 1989 to 1994, witnessing the unification of the country as well as its near dis-unification in the 1994 civil war. Dr. Watkins currently resides in California and writes regularly on international developments in the oil, shipping and security industries.
1. Al-Haj, Ahmed. “USS Cole Follow Up: Yemeni Government Abetted Terrorists,” The Associated Press, 25 Aug 04.
2. For this paragraph and the next, see: “Yemen: Islamic cleric denies al-Iman University runs military wing,” in Asharq al-Awsat, 03 Jan 05; “Yemeni university sues internet paper over terror claims,” on Yemen Observer website, 12 Jan 05; and “Yemeni cleric asks government to sue U.S. over terrorism allegations,” on Yemen Times newspaper website, 13 Jan 05.
3. Ma’ruf, Mahmud. “Yemeni Judge on Dialogue With Al-Qaeda Supporters, Change in ‘Convictions’, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 18 Dec 04.
4. Yemen News Agency Saba website, 15 Feb 05.