So ‘um, what’s a Yemen?’ we hear you ask in a tiny voice.

Alleged Christmas Day bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, put the middle eastern nation firmly back on the map when he admitted to terrorist training with al-Qaeda in camps based in Yemen. That admission came hot on the heels of the discovery that the alleged Fort Hood shooter was linked to another radical Yemeni cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Christmas Day link has since prompted fears of a growing Al Qaeda threat in Yemen, and eventually led President Obama to publically rule out the use of combat forces in the region: “I have no intention of sending US boots on the ground in these regions,” he told People magazine. But according to The Christian Science Monitor, the US military currently provides about $67 million in assistance to Yemen and the US has provided millions in assistance to the Yemenis in the past.


Crikey asked Dr Matthew Gray from the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University for a background briefing:

How pervasive is al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen? How much support does the organisation have locally? Is there local hostility towards the US and its allies? If so, why?

Yemen is a very traditional society, still quite rural-based and tribal, and until recently many people assumed that this meant that the normal type of angry young urban Islamic radicals were not very numerous. While political Islam is more tribalised and traditional in Yemen than in more urban, developed settings elsewhere in the region, in the key cities of Yemen there is some underlying radicalism, especially among younger people, and the lack of government control in rural areas means that al-Qaeda and such types can operate quite freely there if they have some local connections.

How co-operative has the Yemen government been in the past with the US?

The government elite understands the need to co-operate with the US, and for the most part is secular (the old northern government includes people linked to tribes and traditional groups, but is fairly secular, while the old southern elite were mostly Marxist/socialist). At lower levels, however — say within the security apparatus, bureaucracy, and in regional centres — the government cannot impose its Western-leaning views: the security service, in particular, is thought to include some radical anti-Western elements.

Cleric Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani has come out  against any US troop deployment to Yemen to fight al-Qaeda, saying it would be considered an occupation. How much support does al-Zindani have locally?

It’s hard to say. He is tolerated by the regime — they have not handed him over to the US nor expelled him, suggesting that he commands some legitimacy — and he has a reputation as charismatic and hard-working. He is well linked into the Islah party, a major party with a tribal and traditionalist base.

When did Yemen first come on the US radar as a training ground for terrorists? Was it since the bombing of the US Navy ship Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors?

The USS Cole bombing affirmed the security risks in Yemen, though it was on the radar among intelligence services before then because of the fear of growing radicalisation in the 1990s and because of the weak central state.

Was there already a US/British presence in Yemen? How will it now be stepped up in light of the Christmas Day attack?

The US/UK presence has been limited, but has included UAV attacks against extremists and possibly special forces activity and training there … it’s always difficult to know for sure, of course, given the secrecy with which such activities occur. The US may step up training and specialised support, but because of heavy commitments — arguably over-commitments! — in Iraq and Afghanistan, a large group forces presence is not likely under present circumstances.

What is the bin Laden family’s connection with Yemen?

Osama’s father, Abdullah, came from central Yemen to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and subsequently made his fortune in construction and related areas in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is often described as Osama’s ancestral home, but his family links there now are limited.

What is the current status of the government there? What are the tribal groups there and how much control do they wield?

The government in effect is controlled by the President, Ali Abdullah Saleh: while there are presidential elections, Saleh controls them through patronage and mild authoritarianism, and parliamentary elections are managed through his patronage network as well. Saleh has a firm grip on the People’s General Congress, a coalition of parties, and for the time being controls the oil income that supplies roughly three-quarters of the state’s income. The oil, however, is in decline, and will no longer be produced in export volumes by about mid-decade — this, along with water problems, Saleh’s weak legitimacy and the radicalisation of some elements of the security services — accounts for the increasingly pessimistic views of analysts about Yemen’s longer-term stability. The tribal groups, mostly in the north and the east, are strong because of their population base, the confederacy structure through which they organise themselves, and because they are armed (the tribes have more men under arms that the Yemeni military). They are very powerful, and mobilise politically  informally and through the Islah (“reform”) party, the second-largest political party in the country. Moreover, even many sophisticated, urban elites will identify with a tribe or confederacy group.

Germany’s foreign minister has travelled to Yemen in an effort to secure the release of a family of five who were taken hostage last year  — is this kind of hostage taking common?

There are two types of hostage-taking. The most common is a short-term kidnapping, often of foreign workers, by tribes who use the kidnapping to gain concessions from the government (say, new facilities or services in the region). These usually last only a matter of weeks, and in most cases the hostages are well treated and released unharmed. Some kidnappings, however, are by extremist groups, and the Germans currently being held are thought to be the victims of al-Houthi rebels or al-Qaeda types: if so, while rarer, this type of kidnapping would also have a more grim prognosis for the hostages.

Peter Fray

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