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…
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