For the Americans, Yemen has become a very important country, not out of love for its people or its resources, but out of fear from al-Qaeda. A group linked to al-Qaeda chose to reside in a mountainous area in Yemen within the past three years, after they escaped crackdown in the Afghan mountains of and the Pakistani valleys. They thought that Yemen’s geographical location would be a safe haven for them.
Yemen became under the world spotlight following two terrifying incidents, which were the most dangerous since the 9/11 attacks. The first incident was a number of explosives-packed postal parcels that were prepared in Yemen and sent by plane to blow up in Detroit. The second incident was a Nigerian young man—trained at al-Qaeda’s camps in Yemen—who was supposed to blow up a plane over Chicago. Both incidents were foiled before turning into tragedies. Since then, Yemen became similar to Afghanistan; a scene of global war.
This year, U.S. anti-terror troops, along with the U.S. drones, cracked down on al-Qaeda members and bombed their positions in Yemen. The official authorities alleged that the troops and drones belonged to Yemen. However, it is widely believed that the Americans have lost confidence in the Yemeni regime to a big extent that they do not inform the Yemeni authorities anymore of their operations; as leaks within the regime have led to the failure of many planned operations there.
Within the past couple of years, many people grew worried over how al-Qaeda in Yemen operated. A lot of stories were propagated about their secret weapons, their official dealings with al-Qaeda as well as the use of the Yemeni coasts on the part of Iranians and Somali armed groups. It is either one of the following possibilities: either the Yemeni government is disregarding the activities of al-Qaeda on purpose and in the meantime it is supporting the U.S. anti-terror efforts; or the current Yemeni regime is weak enough that it cannot control its departments and personnel.
The regime seemed weak when the Yemenis started their uprising early this year against President Saleh, who faced a lot of defections from his regime and top tribes as well. It has been seven months now since the capital Sana’a was turned into a battlefield between protesters and the government. We all know how things are going now.
It is almost certain that the Yemeni government was not serious in fighting al-Qaeda within the past years. But, has Yemen been using al-Qaeda in its political purposes or was the regime afraid of the organization? This worrying questioned would probably remain unanswered. Within the current crisis that President Saleh has been facing, al-Qaeda managed to seize the city of Zinjibar and thus creating the fear that it might imitate what al- Qaeda in Iraq has been doing; namely seizing cities under its control. It took the Yemeni forced 90 days to evacuate the city of Zinjibar from al-Qaeda, with the help of the Americans in breaking the siege of an a Yemeni army battalion. Two weeks later, one of the most important leaders of al-Qaeda in Yemen—the U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki—was killed.
Both parts, the government and the opposition, exchange accusations over supporting terrorism. The opposition accuses Saleh that he supports terrorism and that he masterminded the fall of the city of Zinjibar. In the meantime, some government figures claim that al-Qaeda is being protected by opposition., For the Yemeni citizen the problem lies President Saleh’s refusal to step down and his transfer of power to his sons and relatives. For world powers, however, the problem is al-Qaeda.
I think that both are right; al-Qaeda is a problem and so is Saleh. Saleh has been walking on a tight rope and accordingly Yemen remained undeveloped for more than 30 years. He only cared about remaining in power by achieving tribal and regional balance, once with Saddam Hussein, another with Qaddafi and now probably with al-Qaeda when it is time for him to leave. The world will not accept a regime that is rejected domestically and internationally.
The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published by the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 3, 2011 and was translated from Arabic by Abeer Tayel.