For the past five years, Yemen has been what is best described as a passive partner in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. It has taken a number of steps to limit the activities of al-Qaeda and other like-minded groups within the country, but most of these have been at the behest of the U.S., and it is often schizophrenic in its pursuit of Islamic militants. In April 2004, Prime Minister Abd al-Qadir Bajammal claimed that Yemen had eradicated 90 percent of the al-Qaeda organization in the country. Yet rumors that factions within the country’s political and security establishment assisted in the recent jailbreak of 23 militants, including prominent figures in the attacks on the USS Cole and the Limburg, have once again raised questions about Yemen’s reliability as an ally in the war on terrorism (Terrorism Focus, February 7).
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Yemen was often mentioned in the same breath as Afghanistan as a possible hideout for al-Qaeda. Many Yemenis, including prominent government officials, felt their country was next on a “hit list” after the U.S. finished in Afghanistan. That fear has been expressed more recently by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, during a speech in Aden in December 2005, when he claimed that he dissuaded the U.S. from occupying the country following the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 (al-Arabiya, December 1, 2005).
The country’s fears stemmed from a long and close history with Islamic militants. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, many of these fighters—known as Afghan Arabs—made their way back to their countries of origin, full of religious zeal and the thrill of victory, and eager to replicate their successes at home. The governments of the Arab world, however, were not as excited with the prospect of a local jihad within their borders. Massive crackdowns by many of these governments forced a number of the Afghan Arabs to flee their countries yet again. Many of them seized on an apocryphal hadith of the Prophet Muhammad: “When disorder threatens, seek refuge in Yemen.” Even Osama bin Laden has alluded to the ideas expressed in the hadith and the situation in Yemen during the mid-1990s when he told Abd al-Bari Atwan of al-Quds al-Arabi in an interview in November 1996 that he would like to live in Yemen because it was one of the few places in the Arab world where one could still breathe the air of freedom.
The Yemeni government largely welcomed these fighters, and in 1994 it managed to turn them into an effective paramilitary force that helped the government put down a secession attempt by the socialist south. The Afghan Arabs were led by Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who has since been listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” by both the U.S. and the UN, and Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a close relative of the president and one of the most powerful military leaders in the country. Both men had extensive contacts among the fighters. Al-Zindani made frequent trips to Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s, and, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, has been a “spiritual leader” of bin Laden. Al-Ahmar is married to the sister of Tariq al-Fadhli, one of the most prominent Yemeni veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and the former head of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. Yet, much like U.S. support for the Afghan Arabs in the 1980s, Yemen’s use of these fighters has since come back to haunt the government.
In addition to the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors, the French oil tanker Limburg was also attacked in 2002, resulting in the death of a Bulgarian sailor who drowned after jumping overboard. Not everyone, however, attributes the attack on the Limburg directly to al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Nasser al-Bahri, bin Laden’s former chief bodyguard, who is also known as Abu Jandal, claimed in an interview with al-Quds al-Arabi in 2004 that the bombing was a rash reaction to the killing of Yahya Saleh Al-Mujalli, a local al-Qaeda operative, by government forces in Sana’a in late September 2002.
Earlier that year, Yemen had invited U.S. special forces into the country as advisers and trainers, and following the attack on the Limburg, it cooperated with the unmanned Predator drone strike on Ali Qaid Sinan al-Harithi, the suspected head of al-Qaeda in Yemen, and five of his companions in November 2002. The Yemeni government paid a high price domestically for allowing the U.S. to strike inside Yemen’s borders, following a leak from the Pentagon that broke the agreement of secrecy between the two countries. President Saleh felt personally betrayed by the leak, and when Yemen captured al-Harithi’s replacement, Mohammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, one year later in November 2003, it refused to allow U.S. officials to interrogate him directly.
The recent escape of 23 prisoners occurred only a day before al-Ahdal was due to stand trial. In the aftermath of the prison break, there has been a great deal of confusion as to whether al-Ahdal escaped or not. Hussein al-Jarbani of al-Sharq al-Awsat, reported on February 5 that al-Ahdal was among the escapees. On February 4, the Yemen Times also published what it called the “official list” of the escapees, noting that the list contained only 22 names, “excluding [Mohammad] Hamdi al-Ahdal.” Other agencies, however, have stated that the judiciary has merely delayed his trial by a week, and that he is still in custody. On February 13, the Yemeni government finally announced that al-Ahdal was still in custody, as it officially began his trial under extremely tight security.
Al-Ahdal was originally captured in 2003, reportedly on a tip from a former militant who had recently been granted his freedom under a government program, Religious Dialogue Council (RDC), headed by Hamoud al-Hitar. The program, which was initiated at the request of President Saleh in September 2002, is designed to convince suspected militants that carrying out violent actions in the name of Islam is not sanctioned by the Quran or the Sunna. It has since released 364 suspected militants in six separate pardons, following their pledges to abstain from violence. Bin Laden’s former bodyguard, al-Bahri, is one such graduate. The RDC, which was initially started as part of a multi-pronged approach to remove Yemen from a “hit list” in Washington, appears to have been caught up in its perceived success through a combination of Western media reports and fewer terrorist attacks in Yemen from late 2002 to early 2005. This early euphoria led to the release of more and more detainees in greater frequency, and eventually to Bajammal’s claim that Yemen was 90 percent al-Qaeda free.
Yet by the summer of 2005, as the war in Iraq continued to drag on, the RDC ran into problems. On June 1, 2005, al-Hitar told the Khaleej Times: “Resistance in Iraq is legitimate, but we cannot differentiate between terrorism and resistance in Iraq’s situation because things are not clear in this case.” Within a few months, however, his views had shifted slightly and he would only say: “Iraq is not a subject of the dialogue” (AP, October 11, 2005). This shift in thinking, or at least public descriptions of the dialogue sessions, seems to have been brought about by an incident in July 2005 when two former detainees, which al-Hitar had recommended for release, carried out a suicide bombing on U.S. forces in Baghdad. Al-Hitar initially denied this claim, which was originally reported by “anonymous Yemeni security sources” in the armed forces weekly paper 26th of September (October 13, 2005). Yet Jamal al-Amir, the editor of the weekly independent newspaper al-Wasat, has argued that the story is true, and that at least eight men from al-Hitar’s program have found their way to Iraq to fight U.S. forces there.
These revelations have essentially spelled the end of al-Hitar’s program. In December 2005, while al-Hitar was in Washington participating in a State Department sponsored conference on religious dialogue, Khalid al-Hammadi of al-Quds al-Arabi reported that sources within Yemen’s security forces were convinced that al-Hitar’s program had failed, and that it should be stopped (al-Quds al-Arabi, December 10, 2005). The sources pointed to the fact that al-Hitar had not been able to persuade the released militants to renounce violence, as a number of the former detainees were still in Iraq fighting. Yemen, of course, has worked extremely hard to keep its young men from traveling to Iraq, turning away suspicious passengers at the airport. Yet the borders are simply too porous to keep everyone in the country and out of Iraq.
The threat of violence is no longer one-way. In January 2006, Yemen announced that it had arrested 19 men, who had recently returned from Iraq and were planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the country. The men were reportedly acting on the orders of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda in Iraq organization. One of the targets was a hotel in Aden frequented by Westerners; the men also had instructions to kill U.S. citizens. The Yemen Observer, which has recently been closed by order of the prime minister as a result of a story on the “cartoon riots,” reported that one of the men, Ali Abdullah Asyan, called himself “Abu Ali al-Harithi, Jr.” in honor of the slain al-Qaeda commander (The Yemen Observer, January 28, 2006).
The return route of fighters from Iraq to Yemen with the intention of striking Western targets in the country suggests that Yemen’s period of relative calm could be nearing an end. It is too soon to tell if this is a new generation of fighters, as the “junior” in Asyan’s assumed name would suggest, but what is clear is that Yemen has not destroyed 90 percent of al-Qaeda in the country. Furthermore, following the recent prison break, it is not even clear if the Yemeni government is 90 percent al-Qaeda free. For Yemen to truly reach Bajammal’s figure, it will have to cease being passive and become a more active ally.