Yemen spirals toward disintegration


Protests in southern Yemen have become a near daily occurrence in several cities.

As war renews in Yemen’s North and protests turn to riots in the South, terror attacks have hit the capital, and the opposition is boycotting upcoming elections. Civil liberties are under attack and traditionalism growing as the central government turns to hard liners for support and the population’s basic needs go unmet.

Northern war

Despite a recent $1.4 million donation from the UK, the World Food Programme is facing an urgent shortage of funds to feed the 77,000 civilians displaced by the war in north Yemen. Several thousand have been killed in the war that began in 2004 and thousands of homes, mosques, and businesses have been destroyed by government shelling. A cease-fire agreement inked in June 2007 failed to stop the fighting and was renegotiated in January. Qatari mediators withdrew this week as both the Yemeni military and the northern Zaidi Shiite rebels refuse to abandon their positions as required. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 200 families arrived in Sa’ada City over the last week because of renewed fighting.

Southern protests

Large protests continue in southern Yemen and have become more frequent and heated. About 200 people are detained without charge in connection with the week-long riots in early April. The protests began last year as demands for equal rights and morphed into calls for southern secession from the state that unified in 1990. Twenty demonstrators have been killed since August. Flags of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen are openly flown at the protests, unthinkable a year ago. Six university students were arrested on Monday. The regime accuses both the domestic opposition and expatriate Yemenis of instigating the protests that currently focus on the release of political prisoners.

Opposition boycott

A new prohibition against demonstrations is an undeclared state of emergency, the opposition charged. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) is an opposition coalition of the Islamic Reform party known as Islah, the Yemeni Socialist Party, and some smaller parties. The JMP announced it will boycott gubernatorial elections in May, calling them a facade of democracy. Governors will be elected by local councils that are dominated by President Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC). Parliamentary elections are slated for 2009. The opposition JMP is rejecting a draft law designating that the Supreme Electoral Commission will be composed of judges. The judiciary in Yemen is highly subject to executive influence. This stalemate may result in an opposition boycott of the parliamentary elections as well.

Terror attacks

Three explosive devices were detonated near the exterior wall of the main police center in the eastern province of Hadramout late Tuesday evening. No one was wounded. It is the 10th incident of a small attack on government targets — police stations, government buildings, and checkpoints — outside the capital since mid-March. Six soldiers were killed in four of the attacks, many of which took place at night. Both the US and UN withdrew nonessential personnel in the last weeks after a mortar attack targeting the US embassy killed one Yemeni policeman in March. In April a western residential compound was subject to mortar fire. No one was injured. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility in an Internet posting for the mortar attacks and an earlier attack on a checkpoint in Hadramout.

The Yemeni regime announced this week that it arrested a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Mohammed Yaqout, in connection with the attack on the US embassy. Senior al Qaeda terrorist Abduallah al Reimi was reportedly arrested on April 7, but it was later found to be a case of mistaken identity. Reimi is wanted in connection with the 2003 al Qaeda attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that killed 17 and wounded 120.

US-Yemeni relations strained

FBI Director Robert Mueller visited Yemen on April 10 to discuss counterterror cooperation between the US and Yemen. Mueller repeated the US request for the extradition of Jamal al Badawi, convicted in the attack on the USS Cole, who escaped jail twice and surrendered in October 2007 to Yemeni officials. Badawi was later reported by local media to be living at home, although government officials claimed he was only visiting and is currently incarcerated. Seventeen US sailors were killed and 49 wounded in the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000 in the port of Aden. After Mueller’s visit, a planned trip to the US by Yemen’s foreign minister Abu Bakr al Qirby was abruptly postponed. Badawi is one of the FBI’s most wanted terrorists, as is Yemeni-American Jaber Elbaneh.

Yemen also refuses to extradite Elbaneh to the US, citing a constitutional prohibition. Elbaneh attended the al Farouq training camp in Afghanistan along with six of his friends from Lackawanna, New York. The Lackawanna Six all pleaded guilty to terror related charges after their return to the US. Elbaneh never returned to the US and escaped Yemeni jail in February 2006 along with Badawi and 21 al Qaeda operatives. Elbaneh surrendered May 2007. In November 2007 Elbaneh was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail for a terror attack. Elbaneh is free on bail and attended two appeal hearings this month. Elbaneh claimed to the court that he reached an agreement directly with Yemeni president Saleh and the matter is finished.

Civil liberties diminished

The trial of prominent activist and journalist Abdulkairm al Khaiwani continues to infuriate Yemeni civil society, fellow journalists, and rights organizations. Al Khaiwani is charged with terrorism and faces the death penalty for possessing information and photographs of the war in Sa’ada. (The Yemeni government calls the Sa’ada rebels “terrorists” although the war is a domestic rebellion and the rebels do not target civilians.) After a lengthy trial, a verdict is expected in May.

A leading independent weekly al Wasat was abruptly closed in April. In a statement, the paper’s staff noted, “While the country is facing a total collapse, the regime is sparing no chance to shutdown all means of expression and clamp on all free voices in the country.” Since the outbreak of the Sa’ada war in 2004, and again with the growing protests in southern Yemen, the Yemeni government increasingly restricted and targeted the media and free expression. A slew of physical and judicial attacks on journalists and newspapers occurred with regularity. The government also blocked opposition and independent news Web sites and blogs. The Internet news aggregator changed domain names several times and devised several tactics to circumvent the censorship including an RSS feed and a downloadable Firefox extension.

Growing traditionalism

In April, the GPC-dominated Parliament refused to vote on a proposed bill outlawing female genital mutilation and another prohibiting the marriage of girls under 15. Underage marriage is common in Yemen with half of all women married before their 18th birthday and many bearing a child shortly after their first menstrual period. Population growth is among the highest in the region, straining the economy. Eight-year-old Nojoud Muhammed Nasser went to court last week requesting a divorce from her 30-year-old husband who forced her to have sex with him when she preferred to play in the yard, she said. After an anonymous donor provided funds to repay her dowry, the marriage was dissolved. The regime is increasingly relying on the support of religious hardliners in response to pressures from northern Shiite rebels, southern Socialists, and civil activists across the country. The government deploys takfiri terminology in state mosques and the official media, excommunicating political rivals and according to some, legitimizing their deaths.

The Yemeni government is in part a criminalized regime, with drug and weapons smuggling and child trafficking accomplished with the coordination of people affiliated with the administration. The government is highly corrupt, with the proceeds of oil revenues, donor grants, and loans subject to elite capture. The regime does make public reform efforts in response to domestic and international pressure, but these are often superficial and accompanied by an equal amount of regression in practice. Rising food prices have erased years of small gains against poverty, and 46 percent of Yemenis now live on under $2.00 a day. Public services including water, education, electricity, security, and medical facilities are largely unavailable in rural Yemen, where 70 percent of the population resides, strengthening public reliance on tribal affiliation for survival.



  • Robert B says:

    Is this at all due to:
    1) AQ in Iraq “moving out” to new pasture since it’s becoming untenable even in most Sunni areas and ability to execute terrorist operations has been cut severely
    2) Backwash from Yemeni meddling, both govt and takfiri if indeed there’s a difference in Somalia and other Horn causing anarchy and revolution at home

  • Jane says:

    1) Yes, a top Saudi counter-terror official noted that Yemen is in the process of becoming the new base for al-Qaeda.
    2) Yemen has had a significant influence in destabilizing the Horn from weapons sales alone. Also the transit of jihaddis from Yemen to Somalia and then back again was noted by the US in a statement.

  • Michael says:

    Once again, I appreciate these insights to Yemen. Understanding all the network connections between rogue nations, orgs, and individual actors is a must for the public today.
    I tend to focus on Iraq to often as a narrow vision of this “long” war, with exception of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    In reality, radicals spread all over the globe thru networking from mulitple base camps located often in what is considered allied nations.
    For example, even if Egypt looks docile today, underneath there is a seething cauldron of resentment by extremist radicals, where Zawahiri roots were planted years ago. We have a real problem with many of these nations leaders not allowing more freedom and corruption runs rampant thru their police, often with brutal beatings to their own people. This creates the radicals who then tie their hatred of corrupt leaders back to America.
    Jane, what are relations between Yemen and other nations? Are there good relations with all Islamic countries? Or, are there some nations that see Yemen as trouble and have stressful relationships?

  • Jane says:

    Thanks! Overall Saleh’s foreign policy much like his domestic one, playing one rival against another. He has good relations with China, Syria, Iran and Cuba, Russia which he uses to push back on US and European demands. The US was particularly displeased with Yemen’s efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Yemen has good relations with Hamas, which maintains an office in Yemen and there are regular fund raisers for “the resistance”.
    The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen in one way is similar to that between the US and Mexico but with much more porous borders. An incredible amount of drugs, persons and weapons is smuggled into SA. Also the SA govt undermines the central Yemeni regime by doling out payments to prominent sheiks and tribes. The stability of Saleh’s regime is important to SA which is leading the drive to have Yemen ascend to the GCC within 10 years. SA also funds much of the Wahabbization of Yemen. The Shiite rebellion on the Saudi border is also a cause for concern to Riyadh. SA contributed a billion dollars over the 4 billion raised at the November 2006 donors conference
    The GCC countries generally recognize that Yemen is a basket case in need of rehabilitation and have worked to help it reform its economy. Kuwait was a tad miffed that Yemen held mourning ceremonies for Saddam. Libya meddles in order to offset SA and spreads its money around. Oman heightened border security several times but its normally quiet. Yemen’s influence in the Horn is related to weapons smuggled. The Sana’a forum – Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia- made efforts to have the UN arms embargo on the Sudan lifted. And Saleh finds himself a statesman and is always tying to settle disputes between other countries, mediating between the ICU and TFG, Hamas and Fatah, and so on, usually with little results.

  • Rebels or terrorists, how tot ell?

    Here’s the answer
    The trial of prominent activist and journalist Abdulkairm al Khaiwani continues to infuriate Yemeni civil society, fellow journalists, and rights organizations. Al Khaiwani is charged with terrorism and faces the death penalty f…

  • anand says:
    Jane, Was this the work of AQ or so-called Shia rebels?
    Good work again.

  • Jane says:

    Hi Anand!
    I have never seen the rebels deliberately target civilians since 2004.
    The players in the Saada war include the military, pro-government tribesmen and reportedly some Sunni Islamic extremists like the Aden Abyan Islamic Army. Onthe other side are several thousand rebels and some elements of the population who got drawn in after their relatives were arrested or houses bombed.
    Its always a possibility that a personal tribal dispute is behind any violence in Yemen.
    In the last two months, al-Qaeda has supposedly engaged in an odd assortment of mortar attacks on western targets that miss, and mostly non-lethal attacks on government buildings that take place at night. Some soldiers were killed at a checkpoint RPG attack.
    Wtih the cease fire in Saada disintegrating, the attack also could have been set up by someone in whose interest it is to re-ignite the war or discredit the rebels, like some military commanders that I can think of.
    At this point its too early to tell, but if I had to rule anybody out, it would be the rebels.


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