Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- A number of previously clandestine Islamic groups have spread in Yemen, especially after the unification of the north and south in 1990. These groups carry different names and vary in beliefs. Some of these groups are the Islamic Jihad, Al-Sunnah Wal-Jamaa, the Aden Abyan Army, and the Faithful Youth organization, led by Badr adinne al-Houthi. The confrontation between the Faithful Youth and the authorities between 2004 and early last year, posed the greatest challenge to the political regime in Yemen since the civil war between the north and south in the summer of 1994.
Asharq Al-Awsat looks into the topic of the jihadist groups in Yemen. In this report, the geographic location, programs and government support of groups will be looked into. Furthermore, the claim that some jihadist leaders have been integrated into the Yemeni Armed Forces as a way for the government to keep watch on them will be examined. .
Primarily, it should be clarified that the Muslim Brotherhood is the Islamic mainstream in Yemen, which, politically and as a party, acts under the umbrella of the opposition party the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, led by parliament speaker Sheikh Abdullah Bin Husayn al Ahmar. In terms of widespread popularity follows the Shiite Zaydi groups from which the Faithful Youth led by Al-Houthi was established.
There are Salafist groups, which were established in the areas of Sa’dah in the north of Yemen and have strongholds in other Yemeni areas. The late Sheikh Muqbil al-Wadi’i played a significant role in the creation of these groups. It seems that the main objective of his movement was to confront the Shiite movement, which has its stronghold in Sa’dah from where it had spread to the northern and central mountainous Yemeni areas over the past centuries when it was a symbol of authority and the ruling dynasty.
There are also Jihadist movements in the southern Yemeni areas, especially in the Abyan governorate that have legitimized their existence by the confrontation with the socialist ideology and the leadership of the Socialist Party, which ruled the south before the country unified. The Islamic Jihad organization in Abyan carried out a terrorist operation in 1992 against US Marine forces in the Aden Hotel and weeks before carried out a terrorist operation on the Golden Moor Hotel, now the Sheraton, in which two tourists were killed and five others were wounded. There is also the Aden Abyan Army, led by Abu-Muhsin al-Mehdar. In late 1998, this organization kidnapped a group of western tourists. The outcome was the death of four Australian and American tourists as well as several members of Islamic Jihad, the military and other security forces.
Yemen is home to a number of other jihadist movements including Sufi groups. They are widespread in the western Yemeni governorate of Al-Hudaydah and the southeastern governorate of Hadramawt. These groups have recently received government support due to the conviction that they are enlightened Islamists, who do are not concerned about politics. In the two governorates, there are also groups of the Shafi’i school of thought that call for Islamic preaching.
There are also a number of Al-Qaeda followers, who are influenced by the ideology of Osama Bin Laden, the most prominent of which was Abu Ali al-Harithi who was assassinated by a US missile fired from an unmanned plane in the Ma’rib desert in November 2002. These supporters also carried out two operations, which targeted the USS Cole destroyer in 2001 and the French Limburg tanker in 2002. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of Islamists, who act independently under the justification of “individual jihad.” These include Ali Jarallah al-Sa’wani, who three years ago assassinated Jarallah Omar, a prominent Yemeni politician and assistant secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party.
The area of Jibla and other areas witnessed the spread of Sunni groups that sought to control people’s social behavior and daily lives. There are also takfir groups, which have labeled many Yemeni political and cultural figures as atheists. What may have contributed to the spread of the Islamic radical groups was their alliance with the regime that ruled north Yemen before the establishment of the Yemeni Arab Republic. The regime needed these Islamic groups to tackle the National Democratic Front in the central areas of the country, which was supported by the Yemeni Socialist Party associated with the socialist bloc in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The strength of those groups increased significantly due to Arab, Islamic, and international aid, that intended to mobilize the youth to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The return of the so-called Arab Afghans posed a big threat to Yemen, as they had found the appropriate conditions to increase their strength due to the conflict between the Yemeni Socialist Party and the General People’s Congress.
Asharq Al-Awsat visited the small city of Ja’ar in Abyan, which is located to the east of Aden, and met with Sheikh Khalid Abdul-Nabi, leader of the banned Islamic Aden Abyan Army. At first, Abdul-Nabi said that “there are jihadists and non-jihadists. Jihad was ordained by Almighty God as every Muslim’s duty. My situation is very normal; however, we faced some incidents and were described by some sides as a jihadist group.” Abd-al-Nabi, who noted that he engaged in “jihad” in Afghanistan, said that he belongs to the Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama’ah group, whose aim is to establish the call to Islam, teach people the correct Islamic approach, fight the innovation of religious beliefs, abide by God’s rule and the prophet’s teachings, to fight moral or ideological corruption (any corruption that conflicts with Sharia law). Based on this premise, Abdul-Nabi does not believe in the legitimacy of western democracy. He said that elections and democracy in his country are “corruptive.” Commenting on the upcoming presidential elections in Yemen, scheduled for September 2006, he told Asharq Al-Awsat that they are “against the law of Almighty God, and they cause confusion, chaos, and dispute.”
There have recently been reports that the Yemeni Political Security apparatus (the Intelligence) arrested in Abyan a number of the Aden-Abyan Army members, as well as members of other groups who agree on the principle of “jihad.” They were interrogated in the presence of US investigators about their preparations for travel to Iraq to engage in “jihad” against the foreign forces. In his first interview about this issue, Khalid Abdul-Nabi confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat the accuracy of these reports, which were also confirmed by an independent source close to the government. The source stated that what took place were the “mistakes of the security services,” because the arrest was made on suspicion of intending to travel to Iraq. This, he noted, might increase the number of fundamentalists.
Sheikh Abdul-Nabi believes that the issue of jihad in Iraq is purely based on the Sharia, because a religious truth does not require a fatwas (religious edict). As long as Muslim land is invaded, the blood of Muslims shed, and their money stolen, it becomes every Muslim’s duty to support their Muslim brothers in any part of the world, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Chechnya.” At the same time, he urged those whom he called the Al-Sunna wal-Jama’ah scholars to issue fatwas about current issues, including jihad in Iraq and to explain the matter.
On training young fighters to travel to Iraq, Abdul-Nabi said, “we have not organized these such activities.” He added, “most of the youth arrested by the state were arrested against the backdrop of reports drafted by people who held felt resentment against these youths.” He said, “Even if people got to Iraq, no one can tell them that God would not accept. Whoever wants to go to Iraq already has a justification.” He added, “These matters do not require discussion or fatwas. These are individual duties. There is the rule that no permission is needed to perform individual duties. Would you ask the permission of your father or mother to perform prayers? This duty was ordained by God; whoever wants to obey the order and support his brothers will be rewarded (by God), even if imprisoned, he would still be rewarded.”
Abdul-Nabi denied the presence of training camps for Islamic fighters in the southern Yemeni governorate of Abyan. He said that such camps were sometimes set up in the areas of Hattat and Al-Maraqishah, the former of which was famous for bloody military confrontations between the Yemeni Special Forces and militants from the Aden-Abyan Army three years ago. He accused media persons in the Yemeni Socialist Party of exaggerating the matter, saying “there are fabrications, such as that camps were set up, training was carried out, and even that the state is protecting and supporting them.”
On their current situation after the arrest of some jihadists, Abdul-Nabi affirmed that their relationship with the state is stable and that there is no friction or any problems. He added, “We are disciplined and quiet. Our lives are normal. When there are some problems, certain sides use them to create problems.” He stressed that they are still complying with the agreement signed with the government through the ideological dialogue with Al-Qaeda members and those who returned from Afghanistan. The dialogue is supervised by Judge Humud al-Hattar, Chairman of the Committee for Ideological Dialogue.
Discussions have increased lately inside and outside Yemen about government support for jihadist groups, including the Aden-Abyan Army. It is believed that these have groups been receiving support since their participation in the fight against the Yemeni Socialist Party alongside the government forces in the civil war of 1994. Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, who has military and family ties with President Ali Abdullah Salih, was mentioned as one of the supporters. Major Gen. Muhsin al-Ahmar is the commander of the First Armored Division and is considered a strong military figures in the country. Some consider him the second man of the regime, and there have been rumors that he is working to absorb and train some jihadist group members and grant them military ranks. An unexpected visit by US Charge d’affaires Nabil Khuri to the camp of the division led by Major Gen. Al-Ahmar raised many questions about this issue. Abdul-Nabi, however, denied having any link to or being supported by Major General Al-Ahmar.
Asharq Al-Awsat tried to obtain statements from Major Gen. Al-Ahmar, however, refused. Sources close to him confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that some jihadists have been integrated into the Armed Forces and have been given military ranks and salaries. This was part of a comprehensive effort by the government, not an individual effort by Al-Ahmar, to contain the mujahideen and so they would abandon their ideology and give up their extremist acts.
Dr Abdallah al-Faqih, professor of political science at the University of Sanaa and a well-known writer, believes that the Yemeni Government is dealing with the jihadist groups in two ways. On the US and western position towards the presence of jihadist groups in Yemen, he told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Americans show an understanding of the way the Yemeni regime is dealing with these groups, which is based on dialogue, containment, and the close surveillance of their activities. On another level, the Americans, and the west in general, are extremely concerned that the current regime may not be able to implement its strategy, and that these groups may therefore become uncontrollable.
He added, “From the perspective of the Americans, what is important is to neutralize the ability of these groups to carry out acts which could harm the US and western interests. If the regime manages to neutralize these groups through dialogue or by arranging their conditions in the security and military institutions, where they can be put under constant watch, then that is what is needed.” On western concerns over the way the Yemeni regime is dealing with these groups, Al-Faqih said that there are a set of reasons for that: First, there is a state of mutual distrust between the US Administration and the Yemeni regime, which was caused by some incidents, such as the discovery of Yemeni fighters in Iraq or the discovery of rifles belonging to the Yemeni Army, which were used in the terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Jeddah. The Americans are afraid that all President Salih is doing is trying to maintain the security of his regime without giving sufficient attention to the price America, or the west in general, could pay. The Americans are also afraid that the regime in Yemen may be covering up the activities carried out by those groups — activities which would make these groups more capable of harming the west in the future. There is also the concern that the Yemeni regime’s ability to control these groups is weak and ineffective.”
On his part, judge Humud al-Hattar defends the strategy of integrating Islamists and defends those who were released from prisons in the wake of the dialogue held with the committee. He said that all those released repented their extremist ideas and are still committed to the results of the dialogue. On the threat these groups pose to the regime and Yemeni society, Al-Hattar said that Yemen managed, to a large extent, to overcome the problem, but it believes that the problem should be contained through many ways. The chief method is “dialogue, the effective cure in this case, which aims (to persuade these groups) to change their convictions and behavior voluntarily, because violence breeds violence and an ideology can be faced with a counter-ideology.”
Al-Hattar denied rumors that the state used some jihadist elements to confront opposition parties and activists, because “the Yemeni state, as long as it is based on democracy and political pluralism, does not need these youths to settle its scores with others.” He stressed that the dialogue the state is holding with those who returned from Afghanistan and other followers of the extremist jihadist ideology aims to “eradicate the ideological roots of extremism and terrorism.”
Over the past few years, Yemen sought to improve its security and military performance in order to fight terrorism, and it received great international support. The international community, particularly the United States, helped the Yemeni Government to establish a coastguard force. Forces on the border were supplied by Washington with weapons, not to mention the US supervision in running the affairs of the coastguard force. In addition to the political security apparatus, a new Intelligence body, the National Security (apparatus), was established. A special department for combating terrorism was founded in the Public Criminal Investigation (Directorate), as well as courts specializing in state security and terrorism. These courts are trying and have tried scores of people.
Although the war on terrorism targeted many prominent Islamic religious leaders in Yemen, Khalid Abdul-Nabi was fortunate, as he did not spend much time in the Intelligence prisons. He left the prison and returned to his area, Ja’ar, in the Abyan Governorate in eastern Aden. Asharq Al-Awsat had interviewed him here previously, inside the Hamzah Bin-Abdul-Muttalib Mosque, which was under the control of his group since they established it after the 1994 civil war. The mosque was built on the grounds where a cinema used to stand and was demolished for this purpose.
Over the past decades, and even during the civil war, Ja’ar, like other cities in southern Yemen, was an open city, which disregarded tribalism and its rigorous conventions, and in which women enjoyed many rights. A visitor to this city and other cities and villages in southern Yemen these days would find that the situation has changed. There are new streets with names that never existed before. The streets no longer carry the names of the martyrs of the Yemeni revolution against British colonialism or the national holidays, but rather the names of other martyrs.
Groups such as the Aden Army have begun to be active in commanding good and forbidding evil and moral corruption, as Abdul-Nabi told Asharq Al-Awsat. Citizens have asserted the presence of groups, which harass citizens whom they believe to be sinners. These days you can see that all women in the streets and schoolgirls, even young girls, wear the veil. A visitor to Ja’ar would also notice bearded boys with long hair wearing short robes, which they believe conform to the teachings of the Prophet, as well as the wearing Afghan garments with kaffiyehs.