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Yemen: Coping with Terrorism and Violence in a Fragile State


On 3 November 2002, an unmanned U.S. “Predator” aircraft hovering in the skies of Yemen fired a Hellfire missile at a car carrying a suspected al-Qaeda leader, four Yemenis said to be members of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, and a Yemeni-American who, according to U.S. authorities, had recruited volunteers to attend al-Qaeda training camps. All six occupants were killed. Almost two months later, three American missionaries were shot and killed in the Yemeni city of Jibla. These incidents, only the latest in a series involving Yemen, reinforced its image as a weak and lawless state with porous borders, a sanctuary for al-Qaeda operatives, a country with tenuous government control over vast parts of its territory and dominated by a culture of kidnappings and endemic violence. The October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, the arrest earlier in 2002 of several Yemenis in the United States and Pakistan suspected of membership in the al-Qaeda network, the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibah, a Yemeni citizen accused of being a key plotter of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., and the attack on the French oil tanker Limburg in October 2002 have all contributed to this perception. Indeed, during the past year, the U.S. has sent special forces to Yemen and neighbouring countries, with the purpose of pursuing presumed members of the al-Qaeda network and associated organisations in Yemen.

The Yemeni reality is, of course, vastly more complex than the headlines it generates and presents a conundrum for international policymakers. Signs of potential instability are offset by significant positive political developments. Yemen has made substantial progress since its unification in 1990 and civil war in 1994. A nascent democracy with the most open political system in the Arabian Peninsula, its government has shown a general commitment to developing the instruments of a modern state and has cooperated with international efforts to uproot the al-Qaeda network.

Concerns that areas of rural Yemen increasingly will become a magnet for members of al-Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan are legitimate but appear exaggerated and, more importantly, can lead to wrong-headed policy conclusions. In contrast to Afghanistan under the Taliban, Yemen’s central government has not offered direct support to that international terrorist organisation. Al-Qaeda has used Yemen as a staging and recruitment area on account of the presence of thousands of veterans who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but has not been able to establish large bases. A variety of politically motivated attacks on foreign and Yemeni targets have taken place in recent years but these have been conducted by diverse actors driven by diverse political goals. Detailed, reliable information about such attacks is scarce, and in most cases it is impossible to discern whether they are personally, financially or politically motivated. Organisational and financial relations between al-Qaeda and two home-grown Islamist militant groups, the Islamic Jihad Movement (IJM) and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, remain murky, although it is known that there have been personal links between Osama bin Laden and members of the IJM in the past.

An exclusive focus on terrorism – and on combating it almost exclusively through military means – would present two sets of risks. First, it could obscure, and therefore leave unaddressed, the domestic roots of the many problems that confront Yemen. Endemic urban and rural violence there reflect a host of interlinked factors. These include widespread poverty, rapid population growth, an uneven distribution of scarce natural and other resources, a heavily armed civilian population that is dispersed throughout remote and often inaccessible regions, a state often unable to extend its authority to rural areas, porous borders and smuggling, weak political institutions, popular disenchantment with the slow pace of democratisation and lingering social, economic and religious cleavages.

The central government has yet to exert full control over tribes in remote areas and faces difficulties in exerting control over religious education in both public and private schools. Parts of the population continue to resist stronger government authority, and many discontented young men and women have been attracted to a variety of home-grown Islamist movements. That Yemen continues to be marred by violent clashes and hostage taking – including by the authorities – is a function of all these complex factors, not one alone.

A second risk, is that the Yemeni government may, like other states, use the cover of anti-terrorism efforts to pursue its own, unrelated political objectives and that it might bend the rule of law in ways that risk generating broader anti-government feeling, thus creating new recruitment opportunities for militant Islamist groups. Branding government disputes with tribes as counter-terrorist operations is one example, as is direct government intervention in tribal disputes motivated by the affiliation of senior officials with one of the conflicting tribes.

The role of the international community and the policy choices it makes are critical. While the government of President Ali Abdallah Salih appears committed to cooperate with U.S. efforts to root out al-Qaeda, it also fears that excessive alignment with Washington, particularly should it attack Iraq, could generate a domestic backlash. Large numbers of Yemenis remain staunchly opposed to any deployment of U.S. forces in their country and an American presence, therefore, needs to be limited, fully coordinated with the Yemeni authorities, and geared toward enabling Yemen to handle security problems arising within its territory. The international community also would be well advised to expand its assistance beyond security in order to help Yemen tackle some of its underlying economic and political problems.

Yemen’s relationship with neighbouring Saudi Arabia is equally complex. While a recent agreement resolving longstanding border disputes has the potential to improve relations, Riyadh continues to provide direct subsidies to a number of tribal leaders – making the task of building an effective central government all the more challenging.

Yemen is not a failed or failing state but it is a fragile one. The varied and, at times, contradictory pressures it faces – from the U.S. to take stronger action against suspected al-Qaeda followers; and from the very militant groups the U.S. seeks to root out and that seem to thrive on the expanding U.S. presence in the Middle East – could put it at risk. Add to this the tensions created by a possible war on Iraq and the continued confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, and the carefully constructed edifice of the Yemeni state – a work still in progress – may yet come apart. The disintegration of the Yemeni state would present its citizens, their region and the international community alike with a set of challenges far graver and more complex than any confronted during the recent past.


To the International Community, especially the U.S.:

On fighting terrorism

1. Respect Yemeni sovereignty and carefully calibrate any direct military operation inside the country to avoid a large-scale presence that would galvanise public opinion and boost the popularity of extremist groups and organisations.

2. Assist in developing more effective border interdiction to impede the smuggling of weapons and persons into and via Yemen, most importantly by obtaining far more involvement and cooperation of neighbouring states – Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east, but also the United Arab Emirates farther east because of smuggling routes across the vast al-Rub al-Khali Desert.

On Strengthening an Effective and Democratic State

3. Expand and improve international development assistance by:

(a) targeting development initiatives to rural areas;

(b) working more directly with local communities to implement development projects; and

4. improving coordination among donors so as to reduce regional inequalities in aid projects.

5. Strengthen Yemen’s judicial system by:

(a) assisting in the development of an independent and efficient judiciary, particularly in rural areas where Yemenis – in its absence – tend to resort to traditional, tribal dispensation of justice and often to violence to resolve disputes; and

(b) modernising and upgrading traditional modes of conflict resolution and conflict management, including possibly by creating mobile mediation committees staffed by local mediators, assisted where necessary by international conflict resolution experts, and seeking cooperation with Yemeni non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

6. Support the timely and effective deployment of national and international election observers, ensuring that they are familiar with the tasks of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendums and deployed well before the parliamentary elections.

7. Support the further development, democratisation and professionalisation of local government, making local councils that have been elected but are not functioning properly a priority for international assistance.

8. Provide support for existing Yemeni human rights bodies, including by helping the parliamentary committee on human rights to investigate abuses more thoroughly and to disseminate its findings.

9. Provide support for awareness campaigns regarding family planning and water conservation, particularly for large qat plantations.

10. Respect the sovereignty and authority of the central government by channelling financial and other assistance through it instead of directly to tribes and tribal leaders.

11. Encourage Saudi Arabia to abjure its traditional policy of interference in domestic Yemeni politics so that it can become a powerful force for strengthening the Yemen state.

To the Yemeni Government:

12. Continue to uproot the al-Qaeda network and deny its operatives access or shelter in Yemen and otherwise cooperate internationally against terrorism.

13. Take action to enhance popular trust in the government and effectiveness of state institutions by:

(a) eliminating irregularities in local, parliamentary and presidential elections and perceptions of gerrymandering in tribal regions;

(b) fighting corruption including by enforcing existing penal provisions punishing bribery;

(c) putting an end to the practice of government hostage-taking; and

(d) ceasing human rights violations, for example by ending detention of citizens without due process and by holding accountable soldiers and security officials who transgress their authority.

14. Promote the even distribution of services and employment opportunities in different regions as part of a broader effort to reduce regional rivalries and tribal conflicts, including by diversifying the economy to provide job opportunities beyond agriculture.

15. Provide the military, police and other security forces with education in human rights and appropriate law enforcement techniques and press for the development of a strict disciplinary code of conduct for these forces that would end the general practice of impunity.

16. Reform the justice system by:

(a) enabling the judiciary to function independently without executive or other interference;

(b) implementing swiftly judicial decisions including those directed against government officials; and

(c) establishing an independent system of promotion on the basis of seniority and merit so that the executive no longer makes these determinations.

Amman/Brussels, 8 January 2003


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