The global reach of al Qaeda in Yemen became clear when a Nigerian disciple of the murder cult nearly blew up an airliner over Detroit. In response, the Obama administration is strengthening its support for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, one of the regions longest serving dictators and one of the most corrupt.
President Obama said he hopes to communicate to “Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death, including the murder of fellow Muslims, while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress.” The hypocrisy is stunning.
The US administration is well aware that Saleh’s government is committing atrocities against civilians that rise to the level of war crimes. In a Darfur-like conflict in Sa’ada, northern Yemen, collective punishment of Shiite civilians includes indiscriminate bombing and intentional starvation. A former recruiter for Usama bin Laden leads the military with the help of tribal militias, former Iraqi army officers and foreign jihaddists. Over 200,000 are homeless from the war and largely deprived of aid. When Oxfam warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe of terrifying proportions,” the Yemeni Health Minister threatened to expel the organization.
Journalists who report on the carnage are tried as terrorists, like Abdulkarim al Khaiwani, or disappear like Mohammed al Maqaleh, who reported an air strike that killed 87 war refugees in September and hasn’t been seen since.
In south Yemen, police shot and killed dozens of anti-government protesters since 2007. Thousands were arrested. (Torture in Yemeni jails is brutal.) At a recent demonstration, southerners raised the US flag like a distress signal for rescue from tyranny. Funeral marches snake for miles along dusty roads.
If bombed starving children, disappeared journalists and bloody protesters aren’t enough for those who ascribe to the strongman theory of Middle Eastern politics, there’s also Yemen’s consistent duplicity on the terror issue.
President Saleh is a long time al Qaeda appeaser who relies on militants as an essential base of support and deploys terrorists as mercenaries. It’s no surprise Yemen’s al Qaeda morphed into a transnational threat or that its leadership survived a recent spate of Yemeni air strikes. The surprise is that the US is staking its security on President Saleh, the King of Spin. Saleh promised to reform after the 2000 USS Cole bombing, the 2002 Limburgh bombing and after qualifying for the Millennium Challenge Account in 2005. He said things were going to be different after the 2006 donor’s conference and the 2008 US Embassy attack that killed 13. In Yemen, al Qaeda is dubbed “the other face of the regime” in reference to the multi-tiered enmeshment between the two. Officials covertly provide training, transport and passports to jihaddists. When Yemen needs fighters, it releases terrorists from jail and puts them on the payroll.
If Obama’s goal is to push back on the terror threat from Yemen for a few years, then Saleh’s messy air strikes, botched raids and half hearted hunting may achieve some limited disruption. But at the root of Yemen’s growing terror threat is elite, not popular, support for al Qaeda. In 1994’s civil war between north and south Yemen, Saleh used veterans of bin Laden’s Afghan jihad to defeat the “Godless communists” in the south. Some of these bin Laden loyalists are now military commanders, governors and ambassadors.
Conventional wisdom holds that al Qaeda fanatics could raise a small army in such a poverty stricken, rowdy and largely illiterate country. Saudi money funds the spread of hard core Salafism while most rural areas have no clean water, electricity or medical services. Jobs go to government loyalists. But instead of lining up as suicide bombers, Yemenis all over the country are protesting for civil rights.
Yemen is not, as Maureen Dowd said, a place “that breeds people who want to kill us.” Yemenis are a kind hearted and courageous people. Last week, Women Journalists Without Chains led the 31th weekly demonstration to support banned newspapers. When ten Sana’a University professors, Academics against Corruption, were fired for exposing massive theft, protesters took to the streets in solidarity. In Aden, security forces strafed a peaceful sit-in at al Ayyam Newspaper, an award winning independent banned in May. Police set the offices on fire and arrested its editors, claiming they were hunting al Qaeda.
The Yemeni people have their own narrative that delegitimizes al Qaeda’s bloody imperialism. In Yemen, democracy is not a dirty American word but a constitutional right denied by a thuggish regime.
Despite the smiling assurances of Yemen’s legion of Baghdad Bobs, Yemen’s government is a brutal mafia. The idea that has broad resonance in Yemen is not the coming of the global caliphate, but the coming of the democratic state.
What Yemen needs, if not a war crimes tribunal, is a major crimes tribunal to purge corrupt officials and foster governmental legitimacy. Yemen’s public funds and lands, foreign aid and oil revenue were stolen by President Saleh and his relatives for decades, while millions of children wither from malnutrition and never attend school. Stability will be achieved when the Yemeni oligarchy accounts for its crimes against the nation. Maybe with amnesty, they’ll leave quietly and a caretaker government of Yemeni technocrats can take the reins with little bloodshed.
Jane Novak is a long-time analyst and expert on Yemeni internal affairs. The author of over 60 articles on Yemen, Jane was dubbed by the Swiss daily NZZ “the best known foreigner in Yemen.” In 2007, her Armies of Liberation web site was banned by the Yemeni government. Jane can be reached via email here.