The Dangerous US Game in Yemen
The day before US missiles began raining down on Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya, hundreds of miles away—across the Red Sea—security forces under the control of Yemen’s US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, massacred more than fifty people who were participating in an overwhelmingly peaceful protest in the capital, Sana. Some of the victims were shot in the head by snipers.
For months, thousands of Yemenis had taken to the streets demanding that Saleh step down, and the regime had responded consistently with defiance and brute force. But on March 21, a severe blow was dealt to Saleh that may prove to be the strike that sparked the hemorrhaging that ultimately brought down his regime. That day, the most powerful figure in Yemen’s military, Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division, threw his support behind the protests and vowed to defend Yemen’s “peaceful youth revolution.” Other senior military figures soon followed suit. Senior civilian officials, including scores of ambassadors and diplomats, announced their resignations. Important tribal leaders, long the most crucial element of Saleh’s grip on power, swung to the opposition.
Saleh, known in Yemen as The Boss, became the country’s leader in 1990 following the unification of the north, which he had ruled since the 1970s, and the south, which had been run by a Marxist government based in Aden. Saleh is a survivor who has deftly navigated his way through the cold war, deep tribal divisions and the “global war on terror.” Under the Obama administration, the United States committed increased military funding for his regime. Though he was known as a double-dealer, Saleh was tacitly viewed as Washington’s man on the Arabian Peninsula.
Throughout his reign, Saleh regarded the Houthi rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south as the greatest threats. For the United States, the concern was Al Qaeda. In the end, it was an autonomous mass of largely young protesters who proved the most potent challenge to Saleh’s power.
The prospect of Saleh’s departure is a source of great anxiety for the White House, but the United States has unintentionally played a significant role in weakening his regime. For more than a decade, US policy neglected Yemen’s civil society and development, focusing instead on a military strategy aimed at hunting down terrorists. These operations not only caused the deaths of dozens of civilians, fueling popular anger against Saleh for allowing the US military to conduct them; they also fed Saleh’s corruption while doing nothing to address Yemen’s place as the poorest country in the Arab world, which proved to be major driving forces behind the rebellion.
A serious case could be made that the stakes are much higher for the United States in Yemen than in Libya, yet its response to the repression of protests in the two countries has been starkly different. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other US officials condemned the violence in Yemen, they stopped far short of calling for an end to the regime or for international military action. Instead, the US position was to call for a “political solution.”
A few days after the massacre in Sana, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a visit to Moscow, was asked if the United States still backed Saleh. “I don’t think it’s my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen,” Gates replied. What he said next spoke volumes about US priorities: “We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen. We consider Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of Al Qaeda right now. And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation.”
AQAP was the group that sent the “underwear bomber” to the States in December 2009. It was also behind the attempted “parcel bombings” in October 2010, and counts among its ranks radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. In February National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter briefed Congress on the top threats faced by the United States worldwide. “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, with al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization, is probably the most significant risk to the US homeland,” he declared before the House Homeland Security Committee. Attorney General Eric Holder said Awlaki “would be on the same list with bin Laden.” Other intelligence sources tell The Nation that the administration has exaggerated Awlaki’s role within AQAP, but they acknowledge that the mythology around him has developed a life of its own. Most analysts estimate that AQAP has 300–500 core members (others say the figure could be as high as several thousand).
From day one of his administration, President Obama and his chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, have made Yemen a top priority because of the presence of AQAP. Although Saleh has often spoken out of both sides of his mouth when dealing with the United States, it is hard to imagine a more pliant leader in that region. Saleh has given permission to the United States to wage a secret war in Yemen, including bombings of AQAP camps and unilateral, lethal operations on Yemeni soil. As a bonus, Saleh has taken public responsibility for US strikes in an attempt to mask the extent of US involvement. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has ramped up training and equipping of Yemen’s military and security forces.
Without a guarantee that a successor government will grant US forces such access, peaceful protesters being gunned down will not be the top priority. “The feckless US response is highlighting how shortsighted our policy is there,” says Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project who recently left the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he was a Yemen analyst. “We meekly consent to Saleh’s brutality out of a misguided fear that our counterterror programs will be cut off, apparently not realizing that, in doing so, we are practically guaranteeing the next government will threaten those very programs.”
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Retired US Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, a veteran Special Forces officer, has known Saleh since 1979, having served for years as the Defense and Army attaché to Yemen. Fluent in Arabic, Lang was often brought into sensitive meetings as a translator for other US officials. He and his British MI6 counterpart would often go hunting with Saleh. “We would drive around with a bunch of vehicles and shoot gazelle, hyenas and the odd baboon,” Lang recalls, adding that Saleh was a “reasonably good shot.” Saleh, Lang says, is “a very charming devil,” describing his long rule as “quite a run in a country where it’s dog-eat-dog. It’s like being the captain on a Klingon battle cruiser, you know? They’re just waiting.” According to Lang, Saleh proved a master of playing tribes against one another. “There’s a precarious balance all the time between the authority of the government and the authority of these massive tribal groups,” he says. “The tribes will dictate the future of Yemen, not AQAP.”
During the US-backed mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, thousands of Yemenis joined the jihad—some of them coordinated and funded directly by Saleh’s government. When the jihadists returned to their home country, Saleh gave them safe haven. “Because we have political pluralism in Yemen, we decided not to have a confrontation with these movements,” Saleh told the New York Times in 2008. Al-Jihad, the movement of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician who rose to become bin Laden’s number-two man, based one of its largest cells in Yemen in the ’90s.
Saleh saw Al Qaeda as a convenient sometime ally that could be used to protect him from the real threats to his power, including the secessionist movement in the south and Houthi rebels in the northern Saada province. The Houthis view his government as a puppet for the United States and the Saudis, and believe they are fighting to preserve their Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam. Even though Saleh is a Zaidi, the Houthis allege he has allowed Wahhabi (i.e., radical Sunni) forces to threaten their existence. Indeed, the Saudis have bombed the Houthis on numerous occasions. Between 2004 and 2010, Saleh’s forces fought consistent battles with the rebels, known in Yemen as the “six wars.”
Beginning with the 1994 civil war, Saleh deployed jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan in his battle against the southern secessionists and the Houthis in the north. “They were the thugs that Saleh used to control any problematic elements. We have so many instances where Saleh was using these guys from Al Qaeda to eliminate opponents of the regime,” according to a former top US counterterrorism official with extensive experience in Yemen who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations on which he worked. Because of the jihadists’ value to Saleh, “they were able to operate freely. They were able to obtain and travel on Yemeni documents. Saleh was their safest base. He tried to make himself a player by playing this card.”
The result was that, as Al Qaeda expanded throughout the ’90s, Yemen provided fertile ground for training camps and recruitment. During the Clinton administration, this arrangement barely registered on the counterterrorism scale outside a small group of officials, mostly from the FBI and CIA, who were tracking the rise of Al Qaeda.
That would change on October 12, 2000, when a small motorboat packed with 500 pounds of explosives blasted a massive hole in the USS Cole, an American warship that had docked in the port of Aden, killing seventeen sailors and wounding more than thirty others. “In Aden, they charged and destroyed a destroyer that fearsome people fear, one that evokes horror when it docks and when it sails,” bin Laden later wrote in a poem that was used in an Al Qaeda recruitment video. The successful attack, according to Al Qaeda experts, inspired droves of recruits—particularly from Yemen—to sign up with Al Qaeda and similar groups.