This is the first in a series of guest posts by John Ford. John will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore. The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy.
THE SNAKE DEN: A PRIMER ON YEMEN By John Ford
To understand Yemen you must begin by understanding that there is very little reason for Yemen to be a country. In fact, until very recently it wasn’t a country at all. For most of the last 500 years, Yemen has been divided into a north and a south. The Northern part of Yemen is predominately Shia Muslim. Until 1918 it was dominated by the Ottoman Empire and after that it was an independent country dominated by the Zaidi Shia.
South Yemen was a British protectorate. The port of Aden was valuable to Britain as a fueling station on the way to India. It remained under British control from the mid-19th century until independence in 1967. Its population and economy were much smaller than that of North Yemen and its people were predominately Sunni Muslim but it still had one very important seaport in Aden.
After centuries of being divided first by imperial powers and then by the borders drawn by Imperial powers the two Yemens were united in 1990. North Yemen would be the senior partner in the marriage by virtue of being much larger in population and its President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would be the President of the new united Yemen. Ali Salim al-Bidh, the President of South Yemen would be Vice President. The arrangements of Yemen’s merger set the stage for the serious problems Yemen faces today.
First, Saleh was an erratic personality. He called his political strategy for governing Yemen “dancing on the heads of snakes”. He was a bumbling would-be Machiavelli of the Arabian Desert whose modus operandi was to switch government patronage from one tribe to another and back again in such a manner that he was sure to alienate all parties. He began his administration of Yemen by siding with Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War and promptly lost nearly all his foreign aid when Saddam was defeated. Since 9/11, he posed as an ally against terrorism and took American aid to fight al Qaeda while he quietly coddled Salafi extremists. He seemed at times to connive for the pure joy of conniving and he spent his 20 years as President steadily losing one group of supporters after another until he was forced out of office during the Arab Spring.
Second, Saleh’s ruling coalition as President of North Yemen had been based on the support of his fellow Zaidi Shia, who comprised a slim majority of the population of North Yemen. But in the unified Yemen, the addition of almost exclusively Sunni southern Yemen gave the country a slight majority of Sunni Muslims. This prompted Saleh to switch patronage over time to the Sunnis and away from the Zaidi Shia and this in turn helped lead to a revolt against Saleh’s government by people who had once been his political base.
Yemen’s weak government and religious divisions helped set the stage for the civil war that began in 1994. Al-Bidh, Saleh’s Vice President, tried to launch a secession movement to break the south off from the newly united Yemen. As former President of South Yemen his power base was in the lightly populated south. He found himself increasingly marginalized in Saleh’s northern dominated government as resources were diverted towards the powerful Zaidi sheiks that Saleh depended on for support. Saleh won the civil war, but the country he won was severely damaged by the conflict. Saleh came out of the war having concluded that his Zaidi-dominated government was not durable in a majority Sunni country. He began to tilt towards Sunnis, increasing the patronage bestowed on Sunni tribes at the expense of the Zaidi (Even though Saleh was himself a Zaidi). By the decade’s end, Saleh’s government was dominated by Sunnis.
Yemen’s problems also made it a perfect target for al Qaeda. Yemen became a hotbed of al Qaeda activity in the late 1990s. An al Qaeda cell based in Aden bombed an American destroyer, the USS Cole, in 1999. Three years later, another attack occurred when Yemen based al Qaeda terrorists hit the Limburg, an oil tanker, off the coast near Aden. Saleh did not intend to repeat his mistake of supporting Saddam during the Gulf War. He saw the al Qaeda threat was of paramount importance to the US. He worked to ingratiate himself to the Americans and struck a pose as an ally in the War on Terror.
But while he was taking American aid he would not separate himself completely from some of his extremist allies. Saleh always appeared to be playing a double-game with the US on the terrorism issue. On the one hand, Saleh would allow American drone strikes like the one that killed al Qaeda leaders like Qaed al-Harithi and Anwar al-Awlawki to occur on his soil.
On the other hand, there were a series of suspicious “escapes” by terror suspects from Yemeni jails. In the most egregious jailbreak incident 23 terrorists escaped a jail in the capital city of Sanaa by tunneling into a women’s bathroom in a mosque next door to the prison. One of the escapees, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, is now the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the second highest ranking member of al Qaeda in the world. Few observers believe this escape was possible without help from the prison guards. While Saleh tried to play games with al Qaeda the terror group grew in strength and now controls large swaths of Yemen’s interior. The group is becoming stronger every day and now threatens to take control of the port of Aden.
Al Qaeda was not the only problem Saleh faced after 9/11. Saleh’s tilt towards the Sunnis had alienated his Zaidi allies. His alliance with the US had alienated them further. In 2004, a powerful family of Zaidi Shia called the al-Houthi began to lead organized protests against the government. The government overreacted massively by arresting hundreds of protests and killing the leader of the protest movement, Sheikh Hussein al-Houthi. The government’s crackdown sparked a broader revolution of Zaidi Shia. The revolution has become extremely violent and has killed 25,000 people since it began in 2004 and left 250,000 more internally displaced.
By 2011, Saleh’s position had become untenable. In the north, he faced a broad based rebellion of his own Zaidi sect led by the al-Houthis who were receiving arms from Iran. In the country’s center and south, he faced a growing al Qaeda insurgency that was beginning to take control of entire towns. Yemen’s security services were unable to win this two-front war. Saleh’s government was toppled during the Arab Spring.
The post-Saleh government of Yemen is sandwiched between two insurgencies it cannot seem to control. The United States continues to send substantial foreign aid to the government of Yemen in the hopes that Yemen’s government will be able to contain these twin rebellions but it is now obvious that as time goes by AQAP grows stronger while the central government grows weaker.
The US has no interest in seeing al Qaeda take control of Yemen and turn it into a base from which it can launch attacks against western targets. Nor does it wish to see the Houthi rebellion take control if it would increase Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula. It cannot afford to simply ignore the problems in Yemen. As the attack on the Cole and the Limburg show, a terrorist dominated Yemen would be a severe threat to international shipping. A terrorist safe haven for al Qaeda anywhere would be a base from which al Qaeda could launch attacks against American interests around the world.
The hope going forward is that Yemen’s government will be less duplicitous now that Saleh is gone and that it will stop playing a double game between the US and al Qaeda. For the moment, the US has no real choice but to continue to prop up Yemen’s government in the hope that it can roll back the two insurgencies it faces. This task will prove difficult because Yemen has no natural reason to be a country and the two insurgencies fall along Yemen’s natural dividing line going back for hundreds of years: A Zaidi Shia north and a Sunni dominated south.
For further reading:
“Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes” by Victoria Clark
“The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia” by Gregory Johnsen
“High Value Target: Countering al Qaeda in Yemen” by Ambassador Edmund Hull
“After bin Laden: Al Qaeda the Next Generation” by Abd al-Bari Atwan