In the face of Saudi Arabia’s success against the al Qaeda organization, many Saudi operatives have fled to the more hospitable climate in Yemen, joining others who recently arrived from Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. Al Qaeda in Yemen announced its merger with Saudi Arabia’s al Qaeda organization to form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The announcement came in its latest release of the online journal Sada al Malahim, or the Echo of Epics. A propaganda video was also released by the group on Friday.
The new head of AQAP is Nassir al Wahishi, the al Qaeda in Yemen leader and former personal secretary to Osama bin Laden. He was extradited by Iran to Yemen in 2003. AQAP’s second-in-command is Said Ali al Shihri, who was released from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia in November 2007. Said al Shihri was accused in Department of Defense documents of providing logistical support to al Qaeda operatives in Iran including briefing them on how to enter Afghanistan. Al Shihiri is accused of participating in the bombing of the US embassy in September 2008. Wahishi’s former lieutenant, Qasim al Reimi, appears in the video saying, “The calamity which you experience suffices for you to realize who your true enemies are: [They are] those who speak your language … but besiege you and deprive you of medical treatment, food and water, and those who prevent your brothers in Amman, Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Riyadh and San’a from assisting you.”
AQAP will construct training camps in Yemen for fighters who wish to join the jihad in the Gaza Strip. The group declared, “From here we start and in Aqsa we meet!” Gaza has also been the topic of propaganda statements issued this month by bin Laden, Ayman Zawahiri, Yeyah al Libi, the Taliban, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. According to Sada al Malahim, the group’s strategy will focus on cutting supply lines of Western nations supporting Israel.
The delineation among affiliated jihadi groups in Yemen is often along geographical lines as well as dependent on the strength of their connection to al Qaeda’s central commanders. Last week the local newspaper Al Wasat reported a statement from the Yemen Soldiers Brigade that more than 300 jihadists traveled to Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan in 2008. Negotiations with the government failed, according to commander “Abu Osama.” “There is nothing left between us and them (government) except for the sword,” said the statement. The statement came after Yemeni forces killed two of its operatives in Sana’a last week.
The group promised attacks on oil facilities, tourists, and security forces. The statement also said that the governorates of Abyan, Shabwa, Hadhramout, Marib, Al Jawf, and Sa’ada are on the verge of falling into al Qaeda control. In December, jihadis murdered three homosexual men in Jahr, Abyan and a Rabbi in Amran.
A report in The Long War Journal noted that Ayman Zawahiri promised Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh more fighters for the northern Sa’ada War and wanted more prison releases for his operatives. Saleh uses jihadis to train the tribal paramilitaries deployed against Shiite rebels and often the civilian population. Human Rights Watch documented the government’s indiscriminate bombing of residential areas in Sa’ada, the blockade on food and medicine to civilians, arbitrary arrests, and the denial of humanitarian access as contrary to international law.
Yemeni government support of Hamas
President Saleh has focused considerable efforts on strengthening Hamas. Saleh ordered all public employees to donate one day’s salary to Gaza and called for the activation of the Arab Joint Defense Agreement against Israel on Jan. 20 during a summit in Kuwait.
Yemen is a main supplier of weapons to jihadist groups throughout the region, and Israel said that Yemen smuggles weapons to Hamas through Sudan and Egypt. Yemen will host Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal on Tuesday. Hamas maintains an office in Yemen with strong support from the Yemeni government.
On Jan. 17, Yemen’s Naba News, a news source close to the government, announced that Yemen had opened its first camp to receive foreigners to train for jihad in Gaza. The would-be jihadists will be received at al Iman University, headed by Sheik Abdulmajid al Zindani who is designated as a terrorist financier by the UN’s 1267 committee and as a spiritual advisor to bin Laden by the US Treasury. Zindani is a strong ally President Saleh. An al Iman spokesman later denied a training camp was on the premises.
The US has alleged that al Iman University is a recruiting and training center for al Qaeda operatives. Its alumni include American John Walker Lindh and French convert Willie Brigitte. Within Yemen, allegations have centered on the proximity of al Iman to a military camp run by President Saleh’s half-brother Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, a recruiter for bin Laden in the 1980s. Yemen’s security forces, military, and administration contain a strong contingent of bin Laden sympathizers and “rehabilitated” jihadists.
Yemen prepares to receive detainees
President Saleh announced that the US will repatriate 94 Yemeni detainees within three months. Yemen is building a rehabilitation center with US assistance, and the FBI this week delivered a half million dollars worth of biometric collection equipment including mobile fingerprint sets. President Saleh said Saturday that Yemen had rejected a US plan to release the 94 to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation. In a Jan. 23 interview, US Ambassador to Yemen, Steven Seche noted, “The Yemeni government legitimately can cite capacity issues that hinder its effectiveness against terrorists.”
Remarking on the status of the Yemenis at Guantanamo, Seche said, “Except in the case perhaps of some very hard-core elements, we believe that the majority of these detainees can be put productively into a reintegration program with the goal over time of enabling them to find a way back into Yemeni society without posing a security risk.”
Yemen has a troubling history of placating al Qaeda operatives, a history that includes early releases of convicted terrorists, multiple escapes, deal making with the terror group, and outright lying to the US on the status of al Qaeda operatives. In 2000, the USS Cole was attacked in the Aden port killing 17 US sailors, and 10 civilians were killed in a terror assault on the US Embassy in Sana’a last September.