In January, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh asked his network of loyalist jihadists to prepare for offensive operations against domestic “enemies of the state.” In return, Saleh has ceded authority to fundamentalist fanatics who seek to impose a neo-Salafi theocracy in the religiously pluralistic country. It is unclear if this is the full extent of the quid pro quo.
For nearly a decade, Yemen’s counter terror strategy has hinged on deal-making with Yemen’s jihadists. Counter terror operations are sporadic and often driven by US or Saudi intelligence. President Saleh has negotiated agreements whereby hundreds of militants’ jail terms were suspended in exchange for a loyalty pledge. Convicted and suspected al Qaeda operatives were given state jobs, cash payments, cars, and land.
High-profile terrorists have repeatedly broken out of jail and then were pardoned for their original crime as well as the escape. This is Yemen’s terrorist rehabilitation program, and these appeasements are staunchly defended by Yemeni officials as necessary to gain intelligence and ensure security. Recently, however, Saleh began to activate this army of militants to target his political foes.
Saleh faces crises on two fronts. A southern populist uprising in the six governorates of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen has taken on separatist overtones. At the same time, the northern Saada war with Zaidi Shiite rebels may erupt for the sixth time since 2004. Saleh has deployed jihadists as a paramilitary against the northern rebels since 2005.
Facing threats in the north and south, and an increasingly poverty stricken and desperate nation, Saleh has embarked on a strategy of empowering Islamic militants who, in exchange, have been given a free hand over some local populations.
Saleh activates “reformed” terrorists
At a meeting in late January, Tariq al Fahdli headed a large delegation of “reformed jihadists” who met with President Saleh in Sana’a. Al Fahdli is a bin Laden loyalist and former al Qaeda operative. He is an in-law of Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, Saleh’s half brother.
Fahdli is thought complicit in al Qaeda’s first operation against the US, the 1992 hotel bombing in Aden that targeted US troops. Khaled Abdul Nabi, head of the reportedly defunct Aden Abyan Islamic Army, was in attendance as well. At the meeting, Saleh asked the jihadists to ensure the stability and unity of the state by mobilizing against his domestic opposition.
The next week, security officials released over a hundred militants from jail including dozens of al Qaeda operatives. Al Fahdli asked for YR five million and settled for a three million riyal budget as sufficient to orchestrate the regime’s directives. Militants established several new terror training camps following the meeting.
Al Tajamo Weekly interviewed sources close to the jihadists who said one training camp was founded in Abyan after jihadists “received the green light from Sana’a.” The regimen of weapons training includes preparations for offensive operations as well as target practice. The camp’s schedule includes arduous physical exercises and three daily meals.
In Aden, security sources and local observers informed al Tajamo that a new camp consists of a mosque, a school, and a residential structure in a sparsely populated area. The compound provides terror training and “accommodates the elements that were being smuggled in earlier times to fight in Iraq.” Al Tajamo reported on a third training camp west of Sana’a that indoctrinates hundreds of young mujahedeen in the Wahabi ideology. The Sana’a camp, like the others, is very austere. During the initial 21-day program, trainees are evaluated and screened for endurance and specific talents. Strict security measures at the compound are designed primarily to prevent the recruits from leaving, the paper reported.
Fundamentalists establish Islamic Emirate
Along with establishing new terror training infrastructure, Yemen has seen a marked uptick in fundamentalist attacks on minorities as autonomous pockets of Taliban-like authority have sprung up across Yemen. The state has taken little action to protect its citizens in these cases, and by passivity may expect to strengthen its grip on power as Southern and Zaidi communities are intimidated along with intellectuals and modernists.
In Jahr, Abyan Jihadists declared an Islamic Emirate. Nine homosexuals were gunned down and murdered in broad daylight. Shabwa Press reports “wine drinkers” were severely beaten. Fundamentalists also attached threatening leaflets to homes, condemning certain women. Tariq al Fahdli, “using elements of the mujahideen for help and security,” took over various buildings and plots of land for distribution to his inner circle, the paper said.
The 14 October published a comprehensive report documenting the fundamentalists’ assumption of authority in Jahr in the last months. The imposition of their version of sharia law includes the outlawing of art, singing, and music. Several music shops have been attacked. Residents’ satellite dishes were destroyed. After one girls’ school received a bomb threat, 80 students stopped attending, and officials closed the school.
Jihadist publications incite “against intellectuals and party leaders and intellectual trends and artists and musicians on the pretext of combating deviant innovation and the culture of secularism, democracy and infidel crusader schemes,” the paper reported. The jihadists also commit “acts of looting on the pretext of combating heresy.” The rule of law is “suspended” in Jahr and central security forces have withdrawn. Some residents have fled the city.
The paper notes that interference and encouragement from outside the province prevents local authorities from establishing order. Preaching from the Grand Mosque in Jahr, Imam Anwar al Hajj Salim accused senior officials of complicity and said the authority in Sana’a is trying to “drag the country into a situation nobody wants.” The establishment of an Islamic emirate in Jahr will undermine the security of Aden, a hotbed of southern political opposition to President Saleh, the weekly concludes.
Al Qaeda operative threatens Shiites
Regime-loyal fundamentalists also seek to establish authority in Dharmar City. Two “senior Wahabi Salafis” issued an ultimatum threatening Shiite Zaidis with death if they failed to convert. The militants were acting on the directives of Abdullah al Raymi, the online journal Newomma reported.
Al Reimi is indicative of the caliber of Saleh’s militant allies, many of whom have historical ties to al Qaeda’s central leadership. Al Reimi was named in Swiss court documents as an al Qaeda operative complicit in the 2003 Riyadh bombing that killed 35 foreigners.
Abdullah Al Reimi fought in Afghanistan and was extradited by Qatar to Yemen in 2005. Jailed for document fraud, he was among the 23 al Qaeda operatives who escaped from a Political Security jail in Sana’a in Feb. 2006. Apprehended in May 2006, al Reimi was released after a loyalty pledge to President Saleh. By 2007, al Reimi was an Imam in Hodeiedah, preaching the radical jihad ideology and railing against Shiites. In April 2008, Yemen erroneously reported that al Reimi was captured. He was described by officials at the time as one of the most wanted terrorists in Yemen and one who had been the subject of a two-year search.
Other communities have been targeted with impunity. In December, threats on Yemen’s Jewish community culminated in murder. Abdul Aziz al Abdi, a former Air Force pilot, warned the Jewish community in Amran to convert, leave, or die. He murdered a prominent Jewish rabbi in a daylight ambush, confessed to authorities, and was fined. In court, al Abdi’s supporters harassed and threatened the victim’s family. Groups of fundamentalists surround Jewish homes, jeering and throwing rocks, and consequently Jewish children no longer attend school. The state claims it is unable to protect the community and plans to relocate them to a segregated ghetto in Sana’a. Ten Jewish citizens relocated to Israel after the murder.