Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh recently struck a deal with Ayman Zawahiri, and Yemen is in the process of emptying its jails of known jihadists. The Yemeni government is recruiting these established jihadists to attack its domestic enemies as it refrains from serious counter-terror measures against the newly formed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The tripartite relationship between the Yemeni regime and al Qaeda enables all participants to further their goals at the expense of national, regional, and global security.
Yemen releases 95 jihadists
News reports from Yemen detail a meeting in Sana’a between President Saleh and a number of so-called reformed jihadists late January. The militants demanded freedom for imprisoned associates. A presidential committee identified 170 jihadists eligible for release, and 95 were released Saturday. Other reports indicate that authorities have cleared for release a total of 300 of the 400 total suspected al Qaeda in prison.
In the latest round of negotiations, Saleh reportedly asked the militants to engage in violence against the southern mobility movement. The southern uprising is bent on achieving the independence of South Yemen and is a substantial threat to Saleh’s grip on power. Tariq al Fahdli was present at the meeting, and at a later meeting in Abyan, militants brandished an official order directing the military to supply the mercenary group with arms and ammunition. Fahdli fought alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan and has been accused of complicity in the 1992 Aden hotel bombing, the first al Qaeda attack that targeted American troops. Fahdli’s sister is married to Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, President Saleh’s half brother and a recruiter for bin Laden in the 1980s.
President Saleh deployed Fahdli and other Afghan Arabs against southern Socialists in 1994’s civil war. Some bin Laden loyalists were rewarded with high positions in the administration and military after the 1994 civil war. More recently, General al Ahmar incorporated Sunni extremists into military ranks during the 2004-2008 Saada War against Shiite “Houthi” rebels. Militants legitimize both the 1994 and Saada deployments by referencing the “apostate” nature of the enemy. This task is made easier by the official media’s description of both Socialists and Shiites as satanic.
The deployment of al Qaeda extremists as a government paramilitary affords the jihadists training, experience, contacts, financial benefit, and the ability to dictate to the regime and indoctrinate followers. Many are awarded military salaries and official positions. After years of integrating militants into Yemen’s security forces and bureaucracy, aspects of the state have been co-opted by extremists.
Direct negotiations between the Yemeni president and al Qaeda operatives grew out of Yemen’s “Dialog Program” established in 2002. Through discussion of the Koran, the program sought to gain assurances that jihadists would not launch assaults within Yemen but said nothing about the Islamic legitimacy of attacks on US troops in Iraq. The program ran until 2005 and was described by some participants as an expedited release program.
In 2005, President Saleh began openly negotiating with the jihadists. One such negotiation in 2006 was conducted by Saleh and the head of Yemen’s Political Security Organization. The jihadists’ representative was Rashad Mohammed Saeed (Abu al Feida), formerly a major figure in al Qaeda and the Taliban who has been seen in videos near Osama Bin Laden.
Saeed later described the outcome of the meeting with Saleh. “It was also agreed to cancel measures imposed on those who are released, like house arrest, the monthly signing of official register and taking permission if you wish to go another province in Yemen,” he said. In 2006, Saeed praised Yemen as “the best country” to deal with militants and noted “The Yemeni government will not enter open confrontations with Mujahideen.”
President Saleh has also arranged state jobs, cars, cash payments and even weddings for militants who pledged to follow the regime’s dictates. Officials spin these negotiations as fostering rehabilitation and integration into society.
In January 2008, a spokesman for an al Qaeda cell in Yemen said the government had recruited some of its members to fight in the Saada War. In exchange, the security forces agreed to “ease the persecution of (al Qaeda) members.” Ahmed Mansour said the group is and has been in contact with the government through intermediaries, adding bin Laden ordered a ban on attacks directed against the regime and that the US remains enemy number one. Other al Qaeda insiders who reference bin Laden’s prohibition on assaults against Saleh’s government include Nasser al Bahri (Abu Jandal), bin Laden’s longtime bodyguard, and Rashad Saeed.
Al Qaeda Central
Another prong of President Saleh’s tripartite relation with al Qaeda is with the group’s central leadership, thought to currently be in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Yemen supplied thousands of recruits to the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, and Yemenis were among the top ranks in the organization, as well as forming the core of personnel who were guarding, feeding, and transporting bin Laden. Saleh welcomed thousands of Yemeni and non-Yemeni jihadists from Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets. Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden frequently visited and preached in Yemen in the 1990s and have many loyalists among Yemeni government ranks.
A long-standing pattern of negotiation exists. After al Qaeda operative Khallad bin Attash was arrested in Yemen in 1999, bin Laden contacted a Yemeni official and bargained for Attash’s release. The Yemeni regime released Attash and promised not to confront al Qaeda. In exchange, bin Laden pledged not to attack the government. Attash later went on the play a role in the USS Cole bombing. Another round of negotiation appears to have taken place 2003 in which regime concessions resulted in immunity from attack.
A current agreement between Yemen’s President Saleh and the al Qaeda terror group was referenced in a report here at The Long War Journal detailing communication between Ayman Zawahiri and President Saleh after September’s embassy attack. A US military official reported that “Saleh feared his government would be the next target, but Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda prisoners released from Yemeni jails and committed al Qaeda foot soldiers to fight the Houthi rebels.”
Although Yemen formally joined the US-led War on Terror after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Yemeni regime has facilitated jihadists’ efforts externally, sheltered fighters internally, and repeatedly misled the US about their whereabouts and status. In early 2007, a Yemeni newspaper tallied 1800 Yemenis who traveled to Iraq for jihad; their families said the young men were trained by top level Yemeni military commanders.
Yemeni courts fail to criminalize attacks on US troops or civilians abroad. In a 2006 trial of 13 jihadists who fought in Iraq, the court found that it is not against Yemeni law to murder foreign nationals in “occupied” Muslim nations. Although the defendants admitted to fighting US and Iraqi forces, they faced no judicial penalty and were convicted only of document fraud.
Yemen refuses to extradite or imprison the al Qaeda operatives convicted of the terror attack on the USS Cole. President Saleh has been equally lenient with those convicted of attacks on tourists and oil facilities. Several were granted “house arrest” after escaping from prison. Yemen’s banking system lacks the legal framework to criminalize terrorist financing.
Some analysts assert that some of the terror attacks since 2006 were orchestrated by Yemen’s security forces in a bid to manipulate international perceptions or overshadow domestic political crises. One of Yemen’s most wanted terrorists, Hamza Ali Saleh al Dhayiuani, said “I am ready to prove the reality that some attacks were planned in co-ordination and agreement of the Political Security and its agents to gain foreign support.”
In November 2008, Al Quds Al Arabi carried an interview with a former terrorist in Yemen who was described as “very close to al Qaeda”. The senior jihadi reported that the terrorist organization has entered a “positive phase” in planning an attack against the US that will “outdo by far” Sept. 11. Al Quds Al Arabi previously published bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the US. The Yemeni former operative reported that he is contact with the current leaders of the organization in Yemen who in turn receive messages from bin Laden.
Al Qaida groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia formally merged operations in January, under the name al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group announced the merger at a press conference attended by a single journalist, Abdulea Shaya, employed as a researcher by the state news agency, SABA. The group was acknowledged by Ayman Zawahiri in a statement. AQAP is based in Yemen. Its leader is a Yemeni, Nasser al Wahishi, who was a close associate of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. AQAP vowed to strike at Western interests and supply routes across the region. The new group and its broad goals appear to be a strategic development on the part of al Qaeda Central in furtherance of its global strategy.
The stated goals of AQAP mirror an April 2008 statement by Al Qaeda’s central leadership which said establishing naval terror cells and control of the seas around Yemen is a “vital step” in achieving a global caliphate. The Bab al Mandeb waterway and Gulf of Aden were termed “of supreme strategic importance” in al Qaeda’s long-term plan. The April statement highlighted the attacks on the USS Cole in 2001 and the French tanker Limburg in 2002 in Port Aden.
In response to the formation of AQAP, Saleh’s regime made several announcements of its intent to find the group’s hideout. Saleh called on tribal leaders and citizens to turn in the militants. Officials accused the opposition parties of supporting al Qaeda in an attempt to overthrow the state. Security forces set up checkpoints, engaged in hunting activities, and beat a man named al Zaheri because his name was similar to the al Qaeda chieftain’s.
AQAP issued a communiqu