Who Tried to Kill Ali Abdullah Saleh?

The hidden feud behind the revolution in Yemen.


There aren’t many foreigners traveling to Sanaa these days, but one group of outsiders is getting a lot of attention: an FBI forensics team, which reportedly arrived last week to investigate the attempted assassination of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia.

Evidence from the scene indicates that the explosion may have been caused by a device that was planted inside the mosque on the presidential compound, and not by a mortar shell or rocket, as was initially reported. If true, this means that someone with close access to the president was involved, which raises the question of why members of the Yemeni regime’s inner circle — set to mark its 33rd anniversary in power next month — now appear intent on destroying each other?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond the protests that have called for Saleh’s resignation and instead look at the premises of the political settlement that has held the inner circle together for so long.

The first spectacular rupture within the group came on March 21, when Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar publicly defected from the Saleh regime three days after snipers gunned down peaceful protesters in Sanaa, killing more than 50 people. Ali Mohsen is the country’s most powerful military leader and a distant cousin of Saleh. A fight between the two men has been simmering for at least a decade; empathy for the protesters was certainly not the only factor contributing to Ali Mohsen’s decision to jump ship. The rivalry between the two former allies was probably more decisive.

By joining the opposition movement, Ali Mohsen and other defectors from the regime have not necessarily heralded a new era for the Yemeni people. Instead, they appear to be settling old scores.

The inner workings of Saleh’s Yemen are incredibly opaque. Think of a series of concentric circles with him at their center: That’s the regime. Tightly wrapped around the president in the next circle are his close relatives (sons, nephews, half brothers, cousins, and in-laws), and slightly further away is the elite of the Sanhan tribe, to which both Saleh and Ali Mohsen belong. These three circles, consisting of perhaps 50 or so people in total, constitute the regime’s inner circle. Some of its members control the country’s most sensitive military positions, including those charged with counterterrorism operations in close cooperation with the United States. All have enjoyed the benefits of being deeply enmeshed in the country’s formal and informal economy.

The regime has intentionally kept the names of most members of the inner circle out of the public realm, and until several years ago even Saleh’s last name — Afaash — was treated as though it were a state secret. The likely reason: The name revealed that Saleh is not a sheikh and does not come from a respected tribal pedigree. Moreover, his name also revealed that Ali Mohsen actually sits above the president in the Sanhan tribal hierarchy.

Palace intrigues are the source of continual debate and rumor within Yemen’s political classes. These debates tend not to be based on verifiable evidence, however, partly because Saleh so actively prevented the inner circle (other than a selection of his close relatives) from appearing in the media. Until only a few years ago, most Sanaa residents could easily point out Ali Mohsen’s house, but most also reported never having seen a photograph of him. This was despite the long shadow that Ali Mohsen cast across Yemeni politics and the active role that was often attributed to him by local analysts and politicians.

Ali Mohsen was vital to Saleh’s rise to formal power and the maintenance of his regime. In June 1978, Ahmed al-Ghashmi, president of what was then North Yemen, was assassinated, as was his predecessor eight months earlier. At that time, Maj. Ali Abdullah Saleh was the commander of the Taiz Military District, which granted him access to the Red Sea and the lucrative international smuggling opportunities that went along with it. He was the second-highest-ranking military commander from the Sanhan tribe after Mohammed Ismail al-Qadhi, who was then in the political wilderness for having supported the wrong side in the 1960s civil war.

Upon Ghashmi’s assassination, Ali Mohsen managed to secure control of the Central Command Headquarters building in Sanaa. A standoff ensued for 40 days, during which time the Sanhan elite sold assets and gathered cash to purchase support from other military commanders for Saleh to capture the presidency. An agreement was settled between the Sanhan sheikhs involved in the enterprise, which was, according to a Sanhan insider, referred to as "the covenant" (al-ahd). Essentially, it contained an understanding that the Sanhan tribe would stand together under Saleh’s leadership and that Ali Mohsen would be next in line to succeed Saleh as president.

The informal succession line did not extend beyond Ali Mohsen, and it is likely that, knowing the short life span of previous Yemeni presidents, the adherents to "the covenant" did not expect their leadership to last for very long. It was widely reported at the time, for example, that when Saleh took office a CIA agent in Sanaa wagered that he would not last six months. Saleh’s presidency — as well as the Sanhan ascendance — was reasonably expected to be a short-term proposition.

The issue of political succession lay largely dormant until 1999, when Saleh began to push for a series of politically regressive constitutional amendments, one of which was an extension of the presidential term of office from five to seven years. Even though he had been in office since 1978, he was only officially elected for the first time in 1999, meaning that under the amended Constitution he could remain in office until 2013 instead of 2009. This prompted intense speculation that the extension was intended to allow the president’s son Ahmed to reach age 40 — the constitutional minimum age for a Yemeni president — before Saleh would be compelled to retire.

Some of the elite within the president’s tribe, including Ali Mohsen, were reportedly outraged at Saleh’s apparent attempt to position his son to succeed him, and this sparked a major factional dispute, though not necessarily because Ali Mohsen wanted the top job for himself. One of Ali Mohsen’s most powerful supporters, the commander of the Eastern Region, Qadhi, spoke out and, according to a Sanhan insider, explicitly told Saleh that he was "breaking the covenant." Very shortly after this reported conversation, Qadhi was killed in a military helicopter crash. Although the crash was officially declared an accident, many observers in Yemen saw it as the beginning of other, more subtle moves against Ali Mohsen within the military, as other officers and units loyal to him began be to removed or weakened.

At around the same time, the relationship between Saleh and the country’s most prominent tribal figure, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar (the deceased patriarch of the family involved in the recent fighting, and not related to Ali Mohsen), also soured markedly. The Sanhan rivalries increased too, with insiders noting privately that Saleh and his sons and nephews attempted to undermine the influence of the Sanhan old guard using tactics of intimidation and humiliation. The families within the tribe increasingly split between two main factions: the Afaash clan (those related to Saleh) and the Qadhi clan (those related to Ali Mohsen).

Yet even though Saleh’s family may try to avenge the attempt on his life, Yemen is not necessarily headed for a long civil war. Despite the situation’s obvious combustibility, several factors could still help pull the country back from the brink.

First, though Saleh’s son commands the Republican Guard, many of the guardsmen have family and tribal kinsmen in Ali Mohsen’s 1st Armored Division and the tribes that support the Ahmar family. The relatively narrow geographical and tribal origins of these three key groups could help to at least limit the potential for resorting to deadly force over an extended period.

Second, though Yemen’s famously gun-toting culture is often touted as a reason to fear civil war, it could also work the other way. Ordinary Yemenis are acutely aware that violence can spiral exponentially as a result of small miscalculations. The fact that the protesters have been resolutely nonviolent despite the regime’s violence against them is just one indication of how well this is understood.

A final factor is Yemen’s political and tribal culture. In tribal conflicts, the goal is less to vanquish an opponent than to demonstrate the ability to apply symbolic force in defense of one’s position and then negotiate a solution in which both sides retain honor. Although this tends to lay a foundation for theatrical brinkmanship in which the cost of miscalculation is real and high, it also means that violent outbursts tend to be relatively short-lived. So far, the casualties caused by the fighting between the Ahmars and those loyal to Saleh have been less than one might expect, considering the amount of firepower used.

Yemen’s modern history is full of short, sharp conflicts, but it is when outside powers have intervened, as in the 1962-1970 bloody northern civil war — which became a proxy fight between Egypt and Saudi Arabia — that war has become most intractable. This observation provides all the more reason to worry about the deep involvement of Saudi Arabia and the United States, with its myopic focus on fighting al Qaeda, in Yemen’s crisis. Both players may be helping to set the stage for the regime’s internal rivalries to explode — with dire consequences for the Yemeni people.

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