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The Jihadis of Yemen

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Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
The market and Old City in Sanaa, Yemen, March 2011

1.

Yemen is an ancient country on the southern heel of the Arabian peninsula, the crucible of many of the peoples and customs we now think of as Arab. But to most Westerners, it is little more than a code word for bizarre terror plots. The branch of al-Qaeda based there has made three efforts to plant bombs on US-bound jetliners, starting with the “crotch bomber” in late 2009, who tried to detonate himself as his flight approached Detroit and succeeded only in burning his own genitals. The plots have grown steadily more sophisticated, and fears of another terror strike originating in Yemen are said to keep President Obama up at night. Yemen is often described in newspaper shorthand as “the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden,” even though his father left there for Saudi Arabia as a very young man.

All this focus on jihad is understandable but sadly reductive, not least because of Yemen’s extraordinary physical beauty: an unearthly landscape of craggy ochre mountains and terraced hillsides where farming has been practiced for thousands of years. It seems strange now that only a few decades ago, hippies and missionaries used to go to Yemen and revel in its remoteness and pre-modern tribal atmosphere.

A more complex Yemen was briefly visible on Western TV screens during the spring of 2011, when a diverse protest movement gathered against Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s longtime ruler. It seemed for a moment that he would join Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in sudden and ignominious retirement. But Saleh was too clever, and the nascent revolution quickly collapsed into a muddle that left no one happy. The street protests, which had been almost totally peaceful—an extraordinary achievement in a country rife with tribal vendettas—soon gave way to a deadly battle within the Yemeni power elite, as the president and his rivals fought for control in the capital. Saleh staved off the inevitable with threats and false promises, even after a bombing in his palace mosque left him badly wounded. Finally, in November 2011, he signed an agreement that ceded power to his vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, but left the current political system largely in place.

By that time, armed jihadis allied with al-Qaeda had taken full advantage of the chaos and were the de facto rulers of a large swath of southern Yemen. The military, confused and demoralized, had put up almost no resistance, and local government officials fled in terror. The jihadis had declared a Taliban-style emirate in Jaar and other towns, and began winning the affections of many villagers with handouts of water, food, and gasoline (even as their kangaroo sharia courts cut off the hands of thieves). As the Americans looked on in horror, the jihadis threatened to capture Aden, Yemen’s second city and a strategic point of access to international shipping lanes. Not until this June did the Yemeni military—with American assistance—finally force the jihadis to withdraw to the desert.

Saleh’s successor, Hadi—who assumed power in February—has been a pleasant surprise to American government officials, who tend to view the country through the narrow lens of counterterrorism policy. He appears to have given the Americans carte blanche for drone strikes, and foreign diplomats find him more direct than the famously mercurial and manipulative Saleh. Even some protesters seem happy with his willingness to fire almost all of Saleh’s family members from their sinecures in the security services.

But when it comes to deeper changes, Hadi’s options seem limited. He is dependent for protection and support on some of the same military and tribal figures who have been bleeding the regime of its oil revenues for years. He presides over a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy, a largely ineffective military, and a country riven by powerful tribal and regional divisions, with a de facto rebel statelet in the north and an angry secessionist movement in the south. His country is the poorest in the Arab world, and it is running out of oil and water very fast. The threats of jihad in Yemen are likely to last a long time.

What are the sources of this crisis? Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, has been writing incisively about Yemen’s various insurgencies for years, and The Last Refuge is an authoritative and deftly written account of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni incarnation. The book is dense with terrorist genealogies, but it also offers a lively portrait of the American government’s stumbling efforts to understand and influence a profoundly alien culture. His account, starting in the 1980s, implicitly places Yemen near the center of the global jihadi movement; it may not be where al-Qaeda started, but it has always furnished many of the movement’s foot soldiers, and it has now succeeded Afghanistan as the US government’s most urgent concern about counterterrorism.

2.

Ask a Yemeni about al-Qaeda, and you are likely to hear that it does not exist. Or that it is a phantom created by President Saleh to squeeze money from the Americans and keep ordinary Yemenis down. I have heard a hundred variations on this theme, even from people who had suffered from jihadist violence. There is a shadow of truth in it. Yemen, like many other Arab countries, encouraged its people to volunteer and fight against the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s, with government ministers and prominent clerics helping to arrange flights to Peshawar.

After it was over, other Arab governments were often deeply suspicious of the returning Mujahideen, seeing them as potential troublemakers. But Saleh welcomed them back, because he sensed that he would need them. Yemen at the time was divided into two mutually hostile states: a Marxist south, the successor state to the former British colony that had achieved independence in 1967; and a nominally democratic north. Saleh, the northern president, had long dreamed of crushing the Marxists and unifying the country, and he knew the Mujahideen hated socialism in all its forms. As the decade came to an end and South Yemen began losing its Soviet patron, Saleh sensed his opportunity. A peremptory unification was declared in 1990, but the celebrations masked a clash of egos and ideologies. There would be a reckoning.

One of the strengths of Johnsen’s book is its patient tracing of the Yemeni thread in the Afghan conflict against the Soviet occupiers and all that took place afterward. At the end of that war in 1990, for instance, bin Laden made plans with one of his fellow warriors—a Yemeni named Tariq al-Fadhli—to continue the jihad in Yemen, where they would force out the Marxists and build an Islamic state. It never happened. But in 1994, after the southerners balked at Saleh’s autocratic ways and a civil war broke out, the Yemeni president called Fadhli and asked him to muster his old wartime companions against the Marxists. The second jihad took place after all, with Fadhli commanding a makeshift brigade and bin Laden providing money and weapons from over the border in Saudi Arabia.

The war was over in two months, and afterward, as Johnsen writes, the jihadis were given free rein to plunder Aden, South Yemen’s capital. Saleh wanted to send a brutal and indelible message, and the jihadis were the perfect vehicle. They looted and smashed the remnants of secular rule in the south—the beachside hotels, the beer gardens. They even destroyed tombstones in graveyards, seeing them as a temptation to idolatry. The worst damage came in the period after the northern victory in July 1994, when Saleh simply stole vast swaths of private and public land across the south, deeding it to those who’d helped him in the war, including the Mujahideen.

The war left Saleh deeply indebted to the jihadis, and to their clerical patron, Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who became a central figure in Yemeni politics as a leader of Islah, Yemen’s Islamist party. Yemen had never been very fertile ground for Salafism, the puritanical religious strain that is dominant in Saudi Arabia, to the north. But the Saudis had been funding religious schools to spread their influence, and Saleh tended to favor Salafis, mainly because they preach strict obedience to temporal rulers. This was not quite true of their ideological siblings, the jihadis, but Saleh reckoned he could control them too. Through the 1990s, jihadis who were pursued by the police in Egypt and other Arab countries found refuge in Yemen. It was natural enough for them to start viewing Yemen as a platform for attacks against what they called “the far enemy”—the US.

3.

The first blow was the suicide attack on the USS Cole, a destroyer that was stationed in Aden’s harbor, in October 2000. But the loss of seventeen US sailors, especially just before a presidential election, was not enough to shake the complacency of either country. September 11 was different. Saleh recognized right away that this was the start of a new era, and of a profoundly uneasy relationship with the United States. He flew to Washington soon afterward, eager to pledge his cooperation. In public, the Bush administration declared Saleh an important partner in the war on terror. But behind the scenes, there was extreme frustration with Saleh’s refusal to push harder against radicals.

Edmund Hull arrived as the new US ambassador to Sanaa in late 2001, and his memoir illustrates, in its dry and understated way, how bad these tensions got. There were “semiserious suggestions to invade the country,” during this period, Hull writes. “The discussions indicated that the ‘target versus partner’ debate was far from resolved.” At the same time, Hull became a target of Saleh’s anger at American arrogance. At one point in High-Value Target, Hull describes being summoned to the palace to have Saleh scream at him, at length, over a memo that suggested Yemen’s provinces could be governed more effectively. (In fact, they were scarcely being governed at all.)

Part of the problem, for the Americans, was Saleh’s long-established habit of ruling the country like a tribal chief. When the US asked him to hand over or jail terrorism suspects—including some of those wanted for the bombing of the Cole—he would sometimes instead arrange a house arrest on his own authority, removing the man from jail and exacting a promise of guardianship from his family. Saleh saw the Americans’ demands as part of a mutual exchange of favors, and he expected to be repaid; the Americans felt they were merely asking for the rule of law, and responded with righteous scorn.

But the problem was not confined to Saleh himself. Yemen’s chief intelligence agency, the Political Security Organization, was shot through with terrorist sympathizers. Mysterious prison breaks involving al-Qaeda members have been almost comically frequent. When one of the recruits in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s radical network walked into the PSO’s offices to inform on the group in 1998, the officer who recorded his account promptly called the jihadis to warn them they had a traitor within their ranks.

For their part, the Americans were often strikingly clumsy and ignorant in their dealings with Yemen, especially in the first panicky years after the September 11 attacks. The nadir may have been the arrest and imprisonment of Muhammad al-Muayyad, a Yemeni cleric who was extradited to the United States on grandiose and baseless terror charges. Johnsen’s unraveling of this little subplot is enough to make anyone cringe. Muayyad was known in his country as the “Father of Orphans” because of his charitable work. Like many other people in Yemen, he did raise money for Hamas. But his real sin was being acquainted with Muhammad al-Ansi, a chronically dishonest informant for the FBI in Brooklyn who was desperate to earn money. Ansi cooked up a story of Muayyad as a terrorist mastermind, sold it to the bureau, and lured the aging cleric to Germany for a sting operation with a promise of donations to Muayyad’s charities.

Handcuffed and flown to New York, Muayyad was tricked out as a Bush administration success story: then Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that he had “personally handed Osama bin Laden $20 million from his terrorist fundraising network.” Even after the informant’s lies were exposed, it took five years before a federal appeals court freed Muayyad to return to Yemen.

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