For the Americans, Yemen has become an extremely significant country, not out of love for its people or resources, but rather out of fear of Al Qaeda. Indeed, an Al Qaeda offshoot opted to hide out in Yemen’s mountainside over the past 3 years, fleeing Afghanistan’s mountains and Pakistan’s valleys, feeling the net closing in around them. The group believed that Yemen, thanks to its geographical features, would be a safe haven for them.
Yemen found itself in the international spotlight following two terrifying incidents, which potentially represented the most dangerous terrorist operations since the 9/11 attacks. The first incident was a number of parcels containing explosives being sent from Yemen by plane to Chicago. The second incident is that of a Nigerian youth – trained in Al Qaeda’s camps in Yemen – attempting to blow up a US commercial plane bound for Detroit. Luckily, both terror plots were foiled. Since that time, Yemen has become like Afghanistan; a battlefront in a global war. Earlier this year, US troops trained in counter-terrorism, along with US drones, have hunted down Al Qaeda members and bombed their positions in Yemen. Official reports have claimed that these attacks and operations are being carried out by Yemeni forces, however it has been widely reported that Washington has lost confidence in the Yemeni regime to the extent that they no longer inform the Yemeni authorities of their operations, after a number of such operations failed due to leaks from within the regime.
The reality is that within the past two years, many people have become increasingly concerned about the way that Al Qaeda has been operating in Yemen. As a result of this, a number of stories have been put forward, from Al Qaeda being in possession of secret weaponry, to Yemen secretly collaborating with the terrorist organization, as well as Iranian forces and Somali armed groups being present on and utilizing Yemen’s coasts. Many people believe that one of two things is happening; either the Yemeni government is purposely turning a blind eye to Al Qaeda activities, whilst also supporting the US counter-terrorism efforts, or the Yemeni regime today is too weak, and cannot effectively control the actions of its apparatus and officials.
The regime has found itself in an extremely weak position after the Yemeni people took the street earlier this year, protesting against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, joining the wave of Arab protests and revolutions. Much of Saleh’s military and tribal support defected from his regime, and the capital Sana’a has been a battlefield between protesters and the government for the past 7 months. We all now know which direction things in Yemen are moving towards.
There can be no doubt that the Yemeni government has not been serious in confronting Al Qaeda over the past few years. However is this out of fear of Al Qaeda, or rather because Sana’a has been using Al Qaeda to serve its own political interests? This is an extremely worrying question that remains without an answer. During the current crisis faced by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Al Qaeda managed to seize the city of Zinjibar and thus gave rise to fears that Al Qaeda in Yemen could seek to do what Al Qaeda in Iraq had been doing, namely forcibly taking control of cities. It took the Yemeni forces 90 days to expel Al Qaeda from Zinjibar. With the help of the Americans, the Yemenis were able to reinforce two besieged Yemeni military battalions. Two weeks later, one of the most important Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen – US born cleric of Yemeni descent Anwar al-Awlaki – was killed.
Both sides, the government and the opposition, exchange accusations of supporting terrorism. The opposition accuses Saleh of such, and claims that he masterminded the fall of the city of Zinjibar. In the meantime, some government figures claim that Al Qaeda is being sheltered by the opposition. For the Yemeni citizens, the problem lies in President Saleh’s refusal to step down, and his intent to transfer power to his sons and relatives. As for the world powers however, the problem is Al Qaeda.
In my personal opinion both are right; Al Qaeda is a problem and so is Saleh. Saleh has been walking a tight rope and accordingly Yemen remained undeveloped for more than 30 years. He only cared about remaining in power by achieving tribal and regional balances, once with Saddam Hussein, another time with Gaddafi, and now probably with Al Qaeda, when it is time for him to leave. The world will not tolerate a regime that has been rejected both domestically and internationally.