Analysis: Yemen-US co-op threatens crisis

By RICHARD SALE, UPI Terrorism Correspondent  |  Dec. 5, 2002 at 8:24 PM
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The unprecedented cooperation being extended by the government of Yemen to the United States in its war on terror is threatening a political crisis in the conservative Arab and Islamic country, according to analysts and U.S. officials.

These officials say that last Thursday's bomb attack on the governor's residence in Marib in central Yemen was probably carried out by supporters of al Qaida -- a response to recent U.S. activities in the country, which the Yemeni government has sanctioned.

Although the bomb caused no deaths and little damage, it is evidence of a mounting political crisis, which threatens the stability of the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his Congress People's Party.

Yemen's decision to cooperate with the U.S. war on terror was cemented in November 2001, after a two-day visit to Washington by Saleh.

Saleh came away with an understanding that Yemen would not be a target for U.S. military operations and quickly delivered this message to government ministers and other political leaders in the country.

According to Yemeni sources -- who asked not to be identified -- at the time, the president briefed leaders of his government within hours of arriving home from the trip in the port city of Al Mukalla. In the meeting, according to these sources, Saleh told his government that he had guarantees from Washington that Yemen would not be a target in the new war on terror, despite being one of a handful of countries where U.S. officials believed large numbers of al Qaida members and sympathizers were based.

In return, Yemen would continue to cooperate with the U.S. anti-terror effort, such as the recent CIA operation, in which a missile fired from a predator pilotless aircraft struck a car, killing the six men inside, all suspected members of al Qaida.

Attending the Al Mukalla meeting was the head of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or Islah -- a powerful Islamist political party -- Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar.

The sheikh is also the speaker of Yemen's parliament and considered an important political ally by Saleh, who relied on his support in the mid-1990s in his civil war with the formerly socialist southern half of the country. The party has not formally been part of the governing coalition since 1997, but its support for Saleh is considered important by analysts, especially in the tribal areas of the country, where the government's ability to impose its will is very limited.

But last month, Islah was one of six Yemeni parties to sign a joint statement attacking the government's cooperation with the United States in the wake of the CIA missile strike.

Islah has been "increasingly irritated" by Saleh's cooperation with the United States -- including allowing the CIA to kill the six al Qaida suspects, an act which Islah and other groups of Islamic radicals "view with abhorrence" -- a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other U.S. officials said the party had links to Islamic radicals associated with Osama bin Laden.

According to a former CIA official, Thursday's attack is suspected to be the specific work of the 5,000-member Abida tribe, a stronghold of of Islah support, which is also thought to be a hotbed of al Qaida sympathizers, he said. "There is genuine evidence that the tribe is sheltering terrorists being sought by the U.S.," the former CIA official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Another U.S. government analyst pointed out that the Abidas have been "directly targeted" by Saleh, along with the Hashid tribal confederation based in northwest Yemen and another stronghold of Islah supporters.

According to former CIA chief of Aghan operations, Milt Bearden, the first joint CIA-FBI counter-terrorism teams went into Yemen in June 2000. Two other U.S. government sources mentioned more recent developments which have irritated Islamic extremists in the country: the training of Yemen's own counter-terrorism forces by U.S. experts, and the continuing joint FBI-CIA operation in the country whose purpose is to locate, arrest or kill members of al Qaida in country.

But Saleh's continuing cooperation with the United States threatens his relationship with Islah which has ties with bin Laden through militant cleric Sheikh Abd al Majid al Zindani who also runs a religious school that the Yemeni government closed earlier this year, U.S. government sources said.

The writ of the government runs only in the capital, Sanaa, a small surrounding area, and the city of Aden -- making Saleh's hold on the country "feeble at best," according to Shiela Carapico, Yemen expert at the University of Richmond.

But U.S. pressure and promises of financial aid, added to the threat of his own Islamic extremists has prompted Saleh to harden his stance against terror, U.S. experts said.

So far the results have been spectacular: the arrest of al Qaida's top Persian Gulf field commander, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the Nov. 3 killing of another top al Qaida operative and Yemen chief of operations, Qaed Sinan al Harithi, by the remote controlled CIA Predator drone, both in less than a month's time, U.S. government sources said. One U.S. government analyst added that a third senior al Qaida member, Mohsen al Fadhli, a confessed planner of the Oct. 6 attack on the tanker Limburg, had been captured in Kuwait early last month, in part because of intelligence supplied by Yemeni officials.

"Al Qaida is taking some real shots," a State Department official said, adding that al Nashiri was in the "top 10" of al Qaida's leadership. Al Nashiri, in his 30s, a Yemeni born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was described by one U.S. intelligence official as the "directing mind for al Qaida operations in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea."

"Saleh has decided on a marriage of convenience with the United States and is gaining strength day by day, " a U.S. government official said, adding that Saleh "agrees" with American advisers that he can "pacify" his frontier with Saudi Arabia and root out al Qaida cells in the tribal areas.

It is a dramatic shift in policy by the government.

According to former CIA terrorist expert Kenneth Katzman, Yemen's past policy has been to tolerate "a certain level of al Qaida activity in Yemen, as long as it perpetrated no violence (there)."

The October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole -- which killed 17 U.S. Navy sailors and nearly sunk the ship -- "basically stabbed Saleh in the back," he said.

"Saleh's real interest is in survival," another U.S. official said. "If Saleh goes on the way he is, helping us, he'll be stronger than he's ever been."

Carapico added that Saleh had a relative whose job had been to "go and court (Islamic) hardliners" among Yemen's welter of tribes. That effort appears to have ended, she said.

"Yemen is bending over backwards," said Carapico, "having been so badly burned for not supporting Desert Storm." Saleh is hoping to eliminate his political opponents, gain strength, and get "a lot of U.S. aid," by fighting his Islamic extremists, she said.

But Judith Kipper, Middle Eastern expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Saleh is being governed by more than mere expedience. Saleh, she said, "has a real vision as to where he wants Yemen to go" and has done far more "towards genuine democratization" than any other area leader.

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