Yemen’s Role in al-Qaeda’s Strategy

Osama bin Laden has always had a very soft spot in his heart for Yemen, saying that it is “one of the best Arab and Muslim countries in terms of its adherence to tradition and the faith … [its] topography is mountainous, and its people are tribal and armed, and allow one to breathe clean air unblemished by humiliation.” Yemen is, of course, also the site of his family’s origin and he has often praised the Kindah tribe of which his family is part. The bin Ladens hail from the village of al-Rubat in the Hadramaut region, and Osama took his fourth wife from there. Bin Laden also has referred often to the religious importance of Yemen, noting the Prophet Muhammad’s high regard for Yemen because of its quick adoption of Islam after the faith’s founding and because he believed that from Yemen “would come 12,000 [fighters] who would support God and His Prophet, and they are among the best of us” (al-Islah, September 2, 1996).

Abundant Manpower

But affection is always overruled by the requirements of war-fighting in bin Laden’s mentality and Yemen has long figured prominently in the conduct of the defensive jihad in terms of manpower and geographic importance. Yemenis, for example, have had significant representation in al-Qaeda since its founding: Tariq al-Fahdli, from southern Yemen, fought alongside bin Laden against the Soviets and was on Yemeni President Salih’s senior council; Nasir Ahmad Nasir al-Bahri (Abu Jandal), who was the longtime chief of his bodyguard unit, is also from Yemen (al-Quds al-Arabi, August 3, 2004). After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, moreover, bin Laden and several of his colleagues sent guns, money and Arab veterans of Afghanistan into Yemen to fight alongside the Salih-led insurgents who eventually defeated the communist regime of southern Yemen to reunify the country in 1990 (al-Qatan al-Arabi, December 27, 1996). Al-Qaeda’s first anti-U.S. attack—against U.S. troops on the way to Somalia—was conducted in Aden, Yemen, in December 1992.

More recently, 80 percent of those involved in the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole were Saudis of Yemeni origin. The members of the al-Qaeda cell that the FBI dismantled in Lackawanna, New York in 2002 were all Yemenis. Furthermore, a significant number of the non-Iraqi mujahideen fighting U.S. forces in Iraq are Yemenis. Indeed, in late 2007 the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, called specifically on the Yemeni Islamists to provide more fighters to support the Iraqi mujahideen. On November 29, 2007, al-Qaeda’s chief in Yemen, Nasir al-Wihayshi (aka Abu Basir), publicly answered that he would immediately send more fighters. “Oh Abu Hamzah, here we come, oh, Iraq, here we come,” Abu Basir pledged (Message from the Amir of al-Qaeda in Yemen to Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, November 29, 2007).

Lasting Geographic Importance

Beyond “the extended manpower fighting for God in happy Yemen,” bin Laden and al-Qaeda have always valued what they refer to as “the strategic depth” that Yemen affords (al-Islah, September 2, 1996; al-Quds al-Arabi, March 9, 1994). While bin Laden and his organization were based in Sudan from 1991 to 1996, for example, they established a sort of “naval bridge” that permitted the flow of guns and fighters between Yemen and Port Sudan in support of Hasan al-Turabi’s Islamist regime in Khartoum. In the other direction, bin Laden sent al-Qaeda operatives from Port Sudan to Yemen and from there infiltrated them into Saudi Arabia across the imperfectly guarded Saudi-Yemeni border as well as into Oman. In Yemen, bin Laden also cultivated ties with President Salih and prominent Islamist shaykhs—including Shaykh Abdul Majid al-Zindani, head of the Yemen Reform Party—and by doing so facilitated the growth of substantial al-Qaeda infrastructure across the country. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen also brought it into closer contact with the Egyptian Islamist groups based there: the Gama’a al-Islamiyah and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the latter of which later united with al-Qaeda. Finally, al-Qaeda has found that some of its Yemeni members are of great assistance in inserting al-Qaeda operatives into the states of East Arica, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific, because of the Yemeni diaspora that was established centuries ago in those regions by Yemeni sailors and commercial traders.

Operational Key and Base of Last Resort

For al-Qaeda, Yemen provides a pivotal, central base that links its theaters of operation in Afghanistan, Iraq, East Africa and the Far East; it also provides a base for training Yemeni fighters and for the rest and refit of fighters from multiple Islamist groups after their tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Today, it appears to be an especially important safe haven for Somali Islamist fighters and the leaders of the Union of Islamic Courts who fled their country after the late-2006 invasion of Ethiopian forces. Some of these Somali fighters—after having regrouped and rearmed—have returned to Mogadishu from Yemen and are contributing to the growth of the Islamist insurgency there (Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 2007).

Al-Qaeda’s organization in Yemen seems to have stabilized after the period of turmoil and governmental suppression that followed the November 2002 death of its leader Abu Ali Harithi. Under the above-mentioned Abu Basir—who escaped from a Yemeni prison in early 2006—al-Qaeda in Yemen clearly has found its legs and is becoming more active (Yemen Times, July 5, 2007). In late June 2007, for example, Abu Basir issued a warning that al-Qaeda would attack in Yemen if its members were not released from prison; on July 4, 2007, al-Qaeda attacked, using a suicide car bomb to kill seven Spanish tourists at an ancient pagan temple east of San’a (al-Jazeera, July 3, 2007). Then, on January 13, the Yemen wing again warned that it would attack if the Salih regime did not release imprisoned al-Qaeda members; on January 19 al-Qaeda killed two Belgian tourists and their drivers in the Hadramaut area (Reuters, January 13; Yemen Times, January 26). Abu Basir’s organization is thus showing some of the same sophistication demonstrated by al-Qaeda groups elsewhere: targeting the tourism industry that earns the country foreign exchange; establishing credibility by making threats and then making good on them; and improving intra-Yemen and international communications by using the internet. In regard to the latter, al-Qaeda in Yemen published the first issue of its internet journal Sada al-Malahim (The Echo of Battles) on January 13 (memriwmp.org, January 16).

Attacks by al-Qaeda in Yemen are likely to continue at a level that does not lead to an all-out confrontation with Salih’s regime. In all likelihood, al-Qaeda intends to cause just enough sporadic damage to persuade Salih’s regime that it is best to curtail its efforts to destroy al-Qaeda and to allow the group to operate relatively freely in and from Yemen as long as no major attacks are staged in the country. Indeed, such a modus vivendi may be in the works as San’a officials have experimented with putting imprisoned Islamists through a reeducation process that shows them the error of their ways and then releases them on the promise of good behavior (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 21, 2006). This almost certainly equates to a license for the militants to do what they want, where they want, as long as it is not in Yemen. Possibly signaling a growing rapprochement between Salih and the militants, al-Qaeda in Yemen spokesman Ahmad Mansur recently claimed that the government had solicited al-Qaeda’s support in fighting Shiite rebels in the north in return for “easing the persecution of our members” (al-Wasat, January 31).

Finally, Yemen has long been regarded by Western and Muslim commentators as a possible refuge-of-last-resort if bin Laden ever has to flee South Asia—bin Laden also has stated such a possibility—and for this reason al-Qaeda must seek to maintain a viable presence in the country. Al-Qaeda in Yemen is particularly strong in the governorates of Marib and Hadramaut—the attacks described above and others have occurred there—and both share a remote, mountainous topography that is much like that of Afghanistan. The two provinces also are inhabited by a welter of deeply conservative Islamic tribes—Marib alone has four powerful tribes with over 70 clans. As in Afghanistan, the mores of these Yemeni tribes cause their members to “think they must do their duty to protect those who are in need for protection whatever they have done. This feeling becomes even stronger if those who need protection are religious people, because the tribesmen here are greatly affected by religious discourse” (Yemen Observer, November 11, 2007).<iframe src=’http://www.jamestown.org/jamestown.org/inner_menu.html’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>