Yemen's Connection With Al Qaeda Tied to Domestic Repression
Ever since the September 11 attacks, Yemen has been periodically linked to al Qaeda terrorist activity. The country's connection to al Qaeda is tangled, and can be traced to discontent with repressive government policies among the country's many tribes.
Several facts connect Yemen and al Qaeda are well established. For example, bin Laden's father was Yemeni, living there until he moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s. In addition, it was in the Yemeni harbor of Aden that forces reportedly linked to al Qaeda launched the suicide attack against the USS Cole. And in mid-December 2001, Yemeni government forces battled tribesmen reportedly sheltering al Qaeda operatives near Marib-a desert town close to the Saudi-Yemeni border.
A thorough appreciation of the Yemeni-al Qaeda connection requires a review of Yemen's complicated experience in recent decades. The Republic of Yemen came into being in 1990 through the union of previously Marxist South Yemen and Arab nationalist North Yemen. Ali Abdallah Salih, the president of the more populous North since 1978, became united Yemen's president upon unification and has held that office ever since.
It must be emphasized, though, that no modern Yemeni government-northern, southern, or united-has been able to exercise authority easily outside the major cities. Yemen is a place where tribes are strong and well-armed in many parts of the country-especially the area around Marib.
Before unification, the Marxist regime had ruled the South dictatorially. The North had been ruled by its army (in which Salih had been a senior officer both before and after he came to power) since 1974.
In the late 1980s, though, Salih launched a democratization process. Parliamentary elections were held in the North in 1988, and democratization was held out as a means by which the ruling party of the less populous South-the Yemeni Socialist Party-might not only retain influence in its traditional base, but even gain some in the North. In united Yemen's first parliamentary elections of 1993, though, the YSP did very poorly.
Dissatisfied with these results, a segment of the Marxist leadership attempted to re-establish the South's independence in 1994. Salih was able to defeat the secessionists that year following roughly three months of fighting.
In his struggle against the former Marxists, Salih enlisted help from the North's growing Islamist movement, especially the Islah Party. Islah is often described as an opposition party, but the actual role it plays is more complicated. It is headed by Abdallah al-Ahmar, the chief sheikh of the North's powerful Hashid tribal confederation (that President Salih and his family also belong to). Al-Ahmar is a conservative who has maintained close ties to Saudi Arabia, even when President Salih's relations with the Kingdom were poor. Al-Ahmar, though, is not completely in control of Islah, which also contains radical Islamic elements in addition to some democratic ones.
North Yemen received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from Saudi Arabia from the early 1970s until unification. Shortly after Yemeni unification in May 1990, however, President Salih infuriated Riyadh by carrying out policies helpful to Saddam Hussein following the latter's invasion of Kuwait. Riyadh retaliated by halting aid to Yemen, expelling approximately 750,000 Yemeni workers from the Kingdom that year, and supporting the South Yemeni secessionists in 1994. Though this last venture was unsuccessful, Riyadh provided support to the remnants of the southern secessionists and-more significantly-to Salih's Islamist opponents for several years afterwards.
But in mid-2000, Salih and the Saudis patched up their relationship. They not only agreed upon a common border (theirs was the last major unresolved border dispute on the Arabian Peninsula), but also reportedly agreed to stop supporting each other's opponents.
This development served as a defining moment for the development of the Yemeni-al Qaeda connection. After being dropped by Riyadh in mid-2000, Salih's Islamist opponents in Yemen appear to have intensified their contacts with al Qaeda.
That there would exist opposition to Salih's government is understandable. Although the 1993 and 1997 parliamentary elections were largely free and fair, Salih did not allow these elected parliaments any real authority. Instead, he continued to make decisions on his own and enforce them through his unregulated, abusive security services. Salih won presidential elections held in 1999, but not before he disqualified all opponents who might have posed a serious challenge to him.
Wishing to avoid the years of isolation Yemen experienced after expressing support for Saddam Hussein in 1990-91, President Salih has forthrightly condemned Islamic terrorist attacks against American targets. Although the American media reported that his government had not been as helpful as it could have been with the investigation into the attack on the USS Cole, Yemen was, in fact, highly cooperative. It gave approval to Washington to dispatch hundreds of investigators from the FBI and other agencies-despite warnings from the US Embassy in Sanaa that ordinary Yemenis would resent such a large American presence (which they did).
Salih's cooperation with Washington on the USS Cole bombing, as well as in the post September 11 anti-terrorism campaign, is not just motivated by a desire for American aid, but also the knowledge that al Qaeda and other Yemeni Islamists could post a threat to him. Hence his willingness to use force last month against Yemeni tribesmen sheltering al Qaeda operatives.
But as the tribe's apparent foreknowledge of the raid demonstrated, there are severe limitations on the Yemeni government's ability to control the countryside. The Yemeni army, after all, is largely drawn from tribesmen. Thus, soldiers cannot be counted on to fire upon people from their own tribe, and are reportedly even reluctant to fire on tribes allied to their own. The tribal influence in the army makes it highly likely that someone with connections to a particular tribe that is about to be attacked can provide advanced warning of any offensive operation.
In general, Salih's government wishes to avoid any action that might provoke a large-scale tribal insurrection (something that appeared to be a distinct possibility just before and during much of the 1994 civil war). Despite the Yemeni government's willingness to cooperate with the United States in the war on terrorism, there is a limit on the extent to which it can actually do so.
While there are undoubtedly some in Yemen who belong to al Qaeda, there are many others-probably including most tribesmen-who side with the terrorist organization not so much because they share its goals but because they see it as an ally against an authoritarian and unresponsive regime. Tribesmen may not be democrats themselves, but they do have a strong sense (according to several whom I met) that the country's leaders should be responsive to their needs.
By holding out the promise of democratization, President Salih raised expectations. By effectively not following through on this promise, he dashed those expectations. Over the same period, Salih and the United States have drawn closer together in an effort to combat terrorism. As a result, the United States is now seen by many Yemenis as an opponent of democratization in their country.
In Yemen, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, military means may defeat Islamic extremism in the short run, but they will not eradicate it if authoritarianism remains in place. The United States could best promote the eradication of Islamic extremism in this country by urging President Salih to fulfill his promise of democratization not just through allowing free elections to the parliament, but through allowing the parliament to play its intended role.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. His writings on Yemen include "Yemeni Unity and Saudi Security," Middle East Policy, March 1992; "External Powers and the Yemeni Civil War," in Jamal S. al-Suwaidi, ed., The Yemeni War of 1994: Causes and Consequences (Saqi Books, 1995); and "Election Day in Aden," Middle East Policy, September 1997.