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Why Do Yemeni Tribes Refuse to Hand Over Terrorist Suspects? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – Tribal figures in Yemen have revealed that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] who are based in Yemen are providing some Yemeni tribes with money to hide its leaders and members. This comes after the Yemeni authorities issued an official statement about the Al Qaeda activity in the country, stressing their commitment to confronting this and pursuing and arresting any Al Qaeda members. AQAP is using the Yemeni tribal region as a safe haven for its leaders and members, exploiting Yemeni tribal customs and traditions with regards to protecting one’s guests and tribal members.

One of the most prominent members of Al Qaeda who is benefiting from tribal protection at the current time is US preacher of Yemeni descent, Anwar al-Awlaqi, who is said to be the spiritual leader of AQAP. Al-Awlaqi is hiding in the Shabwa Governorate of Yemen amongst the Awalik tribe, which he is a member of. The Awalik tribe is one of the largest and most important tribes in southern Yemen.

According to the most recent information available with regards to the war on terror in Yemen, Al Qaeda elements are primarily located in the Shabwa Governorate, the Ma’rib Governorate, the Abyan Governorate, and the Al Jawf Governorate. The Yemeni tribes usually refuse to hand over its own members to the government regardless of the charges that they are facing, including charges of terrorism. This is a result of tribal customs and traditions that prohibit any tribal member or tribal guest being handed over to the State.

Sheikh Mabkhout Bin Abboud, one of the tribal elders in the Ma’rib Governorate in eastern Yemen, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the state has sought to pursue wanted militants in tribal regions “without naming the individual who is wanted or clarifying the charges against them.” He added that the Yemeni authorities want to enter tribal regions and carry out a military campaign here, and this is where misunderstandings arise.

Sheikh Bin Abboud revealed that when Yemeni tribes protect its own members who are wanted on charges of terrorism or affiliation to the Al Qaeda organization or other charges, refusing to surrender these suspects to the government, this is based upon “the tribe’s lack of assurance that justice will be done…and [lack of assurance] that the suspect will be able to defend himself and prove his innocence if he truly did not do anything wrong.” Sheikh Bin Abboud stressed “the lack of trust between the government and the tribes.” He also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the tribal custom in Yemen is based upon protection, and this is a custom that is shared by all Yemeni tribes, and that is “providing succor to those in need, and protection to the oppressed, and other sovereign customs and traditions that nobody can go against.”

On the other hand, Sheikh Nasser Ahmed Abad al-Sharif, who is one of the tribal elders and intellectuals of the Bani Dabyan tribe of Sanaa Governorate told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Yemeni tribal position of refusing to hand over suspects to the state is also linked to the tribe’s relationship with the government. He said “if the tribal elders and leaders have a good relationship with the government, and there is development and service projects and a good atmosphere, then the tribe will cooperate, whilst in the event of a bad relationship [with the government], then there is no cooperation.”

As for suspects who are wanted on terrorism charges, Sheikh al-Sharif said that the issue of any tribal member being handed over depends upon “the justness of their case” in other words the suspect’s guilt or innocence, as there are suspects who have been falsely accused or who have had a case fabricated against them. Sheikh al-Sharif added that in some cases there are some tribal members “who are wanted…but there is no real case against them with regards to issues relating to terrorism.”

Sheikh al-Sharif told Asharq Al-Awsat that one of the most important reasons that prevents a Yemeni tribe handing over a terrorist suspect is if this suspect “or his family has tribal influence, for in such a case it would be difficult to hand him over.” Sheikh al-Sharif also called on the Yemeni government to resort to “dialogue and advice and understanding” in their dealing with Yemeni tribes, confirming that this would be “the most appropriate” path.

As for those who are wanted by the Yemeni security forces but are not actual members of a tribe, and this includes Yemeni and Saudi Arabian citizens and others, Sheikh al-Sharif told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the situation is different here…and Yemeni tribes are not usually proactive in handing over [any] suspects.”

Al-Sharif stressed that the international community must understand one important thing, and that is that is a “taboo” in Yemeni tribal culture to hand over or surrender a member of one’s tribe, regardless of the charges against him. However Sheikh al-Sharif also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the issue is less stringent” with regards to handing over non-tribal members to the security authorities. He also revealed that terrorists have resorted to paying tribes money to hide them, and that the Yemeni authorities have resorted to the same in order to arrest these suspects, speaking of the “similarity in styles” between the terrorists and the security services.

Looking at this issue academically, Dr. Abdul Baqi Shamsan, a sociology professor at the University of Sanaa told Asharq Al-Awsat that the issue or Yemeni tribes refusing to hand over suspects to the government is not only related to tribal customs and values because “tribal identity is collective, and an individual is not solely responsible for his behavior but also the behavior of the collective.” Dr. Shamsan said that this means that “protecting this individual would be part of the tribal system” and “a tribe is compelled to protect those belonging to it, as this is part of protecting itself and its reputation.”

Dr. Shamsan also told Asharq Al-Awsat that the strength of tribal customs and traditions would lessen in the event “of the Yemeni state achieving positive results on the development front, and if the Yemeni judiciary was more active.” He added that the intensification of tribal behavior was a result of “the weakness of the state and the judiciary, and an increase in the amount of time it takes [legal] cases to be resolved.” He also cited some state officials returning to tribal customs to solve their problems away from the judiciary affecting this intensification in tribal behavior.

Dr. Shamsan also made another very important point, and that is that the Yemeni tribes who are protecting those wanted on terrorism charges are not just doing so solely due to Yemeni tribal customs, but that they have other motivations for this, not least their own Islamic affiliation that “plays a role in the tribes being sympathetic towards these figures, regardless of the state considering them terrorists or members of Al Qaeda.” He said that “there is a common criteria and common points that link the goals of such groups, and this is confronting America, the West, and Israel” which some Yemeni tribes may be sympathetic with.

It is worth mentioning that there have been various clashes between the Yemeni security forces and Yemeni tribes over the past dozen years, in northern and southern Yemen. The last such confrontations took place last year in the Abyan Governorate, and also in Shabwa Governorate. Whilst in the Arhab district of Sanaa Governorate, there was a battle between the Yemeni security forces and Al Qaeda gunmen that left dead and wounded on both sides. Similar clashes took place in the Wadi Obeida region of Ma’rib Governorate.