SANAA (AFP) – Yemen’s embattled government links armed Shiite rebels in the north, southern secessionists and resurgent Al-Qaeda militants, saying all three belong to an “axis of evil” in the Arabian Peninsula state.
But analysts and diplomats say this is a willful deception intended at demonising even legitimate dissent and preparing the ground for a crackdown on challenges to the 31-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Earlier this month, Yemen’s Prime Minister Ali Mujawar warned countrymen that the southern secessionists and northern rebels stood together in an “axis of evil” with Al-Qaeda.
But Mujawar, who will lead the government delegation to talks in London on Wednesday to seek support and foreign aid for Sanaa’s anti-extremism drive, did not provide any evidence to prove such a link.
“The government rolls out this theory, which for the moment no one believes, that all this is a vast plot,” said one diplomat in the capital who did not want to be identified.
The government claims that “the Shiites of the north are related to Al-Qaeda… and political opponents of any kind in the South also,” he said. “I do not believe that at all.”
Franck Mernier, the French co-author of “Contemporary Yemen”, said that linking the southern and northern rebels to Al-Qaeda de-legitimises campaigns in the eyes of the international community.
“Putting everyone in the same basket and playing the Al-Qaeda card grants Yemen the authority to violently and arbitrarily suppress any challenge,” he said.
“It de-legitimises any opposition and also makes it possible to obtain international support,” Mernier added.
Yemen, the ancestral home of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and a staging ground for Islamic militants who hide in its largely lawless tribal regions, has been under intense international pressure to uproot the extremists.
Sanaa says it needs arms, money and training to do that. Yemeni officials have said they will insist on economic aid to fight extremism and poverty at the London conference.
The meeting, to be attended by about 21 countries, was called by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown after an alleged attempt last month to blow up a US airliner threw the spotlight on militancy in Yemen.
Long-standing concerns that Yemen has become a haven for Islamist militant groups materialised on Christmas Day when a Nigerian man allegedly trained in Yemen was charged with trying to blow up the Northwest Airlines jet.
But what could have been a Christmas catastrophe for the West was a windfall for Yemen, the diplomat in Sanaa said.
“This business of the young Nigerian… was a great windfall for the Yemeni regime,” he said.
According to a European economist in Sanaa: “The official theory is that they (the movements) are all linked, that they are all together. In fact, they are incompatible.”
Al-Qaeda chiefs and militants in Yemen and elsewhere are Sunni Muslims, while the rebels fighting in the north are Shiites and the southern secessionists are fighting not over religion but for more rights.
The northern Huthi rebels have agitated against the growing influence in the northern mountains of radical Salafi Sunnis who are largely sympathetic to Al-Qaeda.
The South was an independent socialist state and at war with the traditionalist North until unification in 1990, when Yemen became the only republic in the Arabian Peninsula.
Southerners complaining of discrimination and a lack of financial aid hold frequent demonstrations, demanding either increased autonomy or independence.
“I am a member of the socialist party, and yet they (officials) say that I am from Al-Qaeda,” said Aidaroos al-Naquib, who heads the Yemen Socialist Party bloc in parliament.
“This is false, of course. We want nothing to do with terrorists. If you raise the spectre of Al-Qaeda, the whole world comes to your help and you can obtain a moral, political, financial and military backing,” Naquib said.
“That is what Ali Mujawar will seek in London.”