Whose Side Is Yemen On?
Ali Abdullah Saleh's government colluded with al Qaeda and duped the West. Has anything changed since his ouster?
SANAA, Yemen — In the crowded Shumaila market in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, on May 28, 2005, Faysal Abdulaziz al-Arifi took a few trembling steps past buzzing stalls and garbage quickly accumulating on the street’s edge.
Nasr al-Faqih, a police officer in the market, noticed Arifi’s nervous looks and approached him. Faqih tried to get close to him, but Arifi pulled away. When the policeman asked him why, Arifi whispered, "I can’t tell you on the street. The cell is watching me."
Under interrogation, Arifi confessed that he had been on his way to the central United Nations office in Sanaa, where he had been ordered to detonate an explosives belt hidden under his clothes — a belt his mother had fastened to his body. But the teenager admitted that he was not ready to die and went looking for somewhere to turn himself in.
This story was related by Abdu al-Faqih, Nasr’s brother and an officer in Yemen’s Defense Ministry. According to Abdu, however, there was an even more disturbing twist to the young man’s suicide mission: The cell he claimed was watching him was an al Qaeda unit operating in the capital whose membership included officers from the elite Republican Guard, Central Security forces, and the army’s 1st Armored Division.
The response from authorities when Faqih reported his capture of a suicide bomber targeting the United Nations was negligible, according to Abdu, who has followed his brother’s case closely. Officers in the security apparatuses refused to take Faqih’s report seriously and ignored claims of al Qaeda infiltration into the ranks of Yemen’s armed forces.
Months later, the attacks began. First, a gang attacked Faqih with a dagger as he left a Sanaa restaurant. Then men fired at him on his way home from duty. Finally, returning to Sanaa from his home village on a snaking mountain highway, Faqih’s taxi was pushed off the road by a pursuing Hilux pickup truck. Faqih’s vehicle overturned, and he lost his right eye and suffered a crushed jaw in the crash.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry refused to pay for treatment of Faqih’s injuries. Sanaa’s prosecution court never published the findings of its investigations of the attempts on Faqih’s life, and when his family pressed them for information, they were met with a firm response: His case had been closed.
Abdu is convinced of the complicity of the Yemeni security apparatuses in the attempts on his brother’s life. "I accuse members of al Qaeda and their operatives inside the security organizations of being behind the assassination attempts," he seethed, looking over a pile of his brother’s records in a living room in Sanaa’s Old City. He pointed to the traffic report of his brother’s accident, which states that Faqih sustained only basic injuries despite his now permanent disabilities, which Abdu believes is a sign that authorities wanted to keep the accident as low profile as possible by minimizing the damage.
Abdu also emphasized that though the previous and current attorney generals, as well as Gen. Fadhal al-Qawsi, commander of the Central Security forces, issued orders to carry out a full investigation of the attempts on Faqih’s life, his case remained untouched.
Faqih, feeling himself under threat and believing the justice system was unable to protect him, fled to Cairo and has refused to speak on his case. Abdu says his brother "is afraid his family in Yemen will be knocked off" if he makes noise about his case, or government collusion with terrorists.
Foreign Policy contacted Yemeni Interior Minister Abdul Qadir Qahtan for comment on Faqih’s case and accusations of government cooperation with al Qaeda. He refused to respond to the allegations.
Faqih is just one of the many Yemenis who have come to suspect that their government is not fighting, but helping cultivate, jihadi activity in their country. According to sources in Yemen’s Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry, as well as independent Yemeni analysts and journalists with intimate knowledge of al Qaeda in Yemen, the Yemeni government is fully aware of a number of al Qaeda cells — and their existence is tolerated and their crimes covered up.
It’s a richly ironic development. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in February after a year of mass protests, was lauded by U.S. officials as a valuable partner in the war on terror. In a WikiLeaked 2009 State Department cable, Saleh "insisted that Yemen’s national territory is available for unilateral CT [counterterrorism] operations by the U.S." According to another cable, Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, that when it came to U.S. missile strikes on Yemeni soil, "We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." For Saleh’s cooperation, Washington showered him with political and financial support.
Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, has asserted that Saleh manipulated the terrorist threat in Yemen to extract support from the United States. "At all levels of Yemen’s political elite you have collusion and cooperation with militants and terrorists," he told Foreign Policy.
The collusion reaches beyond Saleh’s presidential circle, Iryani pointed out. Iryani claimed that Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO), the government’s most powerful internal security apparatus, is deeply connected to al Qaeda — aware of its movements but never taking action unless forced to do so by public events. "Safe houses for al Qaeda leaders in Sanaa were provided by the PSO," he said. "When the attack on the British ambassador to Yemen occurred [in April 2010], the PSO went out to neighborhoods in Sanaa around the British and American embassies and arrested several dozen al Qaeda activists that same day. The PSO knew where they were."
Others working in Yemen’s security organizations have come forward to describe their experiences with government collusion with al Qaeda up close.
Sitting cross-legged in a locked room in his tiny cement house on a mountaintop overlooking Sanaa, an officer in Yemen’s Interior Ministry, speaking to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, described how he apprehended a young man in the capital’s Hayy Siasi neighborhood in 2008 for his involvement in a gunfight. The officer said they found pictures on the youth’s mobile phone of him training with other militants in what looked like Hadramout, a governorate in the distant east of the country. During questioning, the officer said, it came out that the young man was a member of al Qaeda.
"He [the young man under arrest] let slip that he’d been imprisoned by the Political Security before, but had been released, telling us that he was in touch with the chief of Political Security [Ghalib al-Qamish]," the officer said. With growing unease, he went on. "I told him that if he was really in touch with Qamish, why didn’t he call him? He did, and Qamish got extremely angry, asking him, ‘Why are you talking about me in front of them?!’ and hung up. But, a half-hour later, orders came from the ministry to release him."
The release of terrorism suspects has a long history in Yemen. The 2006 prison break of 23 militants from Sanaa’s Political Security prison was one of the most notorious escapes in Yemen’s history, setting a number of dangerous al Qaeda operatives free again, including several who had participated in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.
According to some observers, it had to be an inside job. The prison is an imposing fortress in the heart of Sanaa, with plainclothes soldiers patrolling its perimeter. Inmates’ spare cells — only plastic silverware is allowed in — are inspected several times a day. Prisoners are only allowed a half-hour a day outdoors, according to Muhammed Ghazwan, a Yemeni journalist with the local Shari newspaper, who was imprisoned there.
Muhsin Khosroof, a retired colonel and frequent commentator on Yemeni affairs, said that prisoners who escaped dug a tunnel to a mosque near the prison: "We don’t know how they got the tools to dig a 300-meter tunnel, and we don’t know where the soil they dug out went." Without the acquiescence of prison officials, he said, "this operation would seem impossible."
Khosroof thinks prison breaks aren’t the only thing demonstrating collusion on the part of Yemeni officials with terrorists. The full-scale occupation of areas of southern Yemen by a local arm of al Qaeda calling itself Ansar al-Sharia during last year’s uprising against Saleh, he thinks, would not have been possible without help from elements in the armed forces. According to Khosroof, the militants’ success was simply too rapid to explain otherwise.
"No more than 400 al Qaeda fighters were able to occupy an entire governorate, which had several military detachments and special anti-terrorism teams trained by the Americans," he said. "All of these soldiers did nothing to confront 400 fighters, who occupied all of Abyan governorate and half of Shabwa governorate [both in Yemen’s south]."
Ansar al-Sharia briefly took control of Ridaa, a city in Bayda governorate, for a few days in January, terrifying onlookers with the prospect that the group would move on the capital only 80 miles distant. Khosroof believes that Ridaa’s capture was a maneuver orchestrated to make Yemenis cry out to the ailing Saleh regime for protection. "No battle occurred. Is this not evidence?" He asked. "No confrontation. The Republican Guard, the armed forces are supposed to stop them [Ansar al-Sharia]. No one confronted them, and they entered in peace."
President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, Saleh’s successor and former vice president, has embarked on a high-profile campaign to wrest control of southern Yemen from al Qaeda. But suspicions run high that Yemen’s current government is still covering for the terrorist organization. Ghazwan, who specializes in al Qaeda and military affairs, argued that militants escaped Hadi’s offensive largely unscathed primarily with the help of top military leaders. "During the latest war, al Qaeda was able to reproduce itself through relationships with top military leaders," he said.
When the Yemeni military took the southern cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in its lightning campaign in June, Ansar al-Sharia beat a hasty retreat to the port city of Shaqra. When the army moved on Shaqra, the organization was able to regroup with all its heavy weaponry in the remote stronghold area of Mehfid, where it remains today — and which will likely be the staging ground for even larger battles, Ghazwan noted.
Ghazwan said that a special unit cobbled together from local tribesman and military personnel had been formed with the purpose of defending an area called the Khubr Triangle, which lies between Shaqra and Mehfid. The unit was supposed to intercept Ansar al-Sharia on the al Qaeda offshoot’s way to Mehfid. Yet, the unit’s leader told Ghazwan that when the battle came, Military Operations ordered him not to intercept al Qaeda.
"Orders came at the time of the battle saying, ‘This brigade should not move to Khubr.’ And they stayed where they were for two days. And Ansar al-Sharia was able to move all of its heavy equipment to Mehfid," Ghazwan said.
"When you call mid-ranking military officials and speak to them on this issue," Ghazwan pointed out, "they tell you, ‘We don’t know who’s behind this. Orders came from Military Operations not to move.’ This indicates that al Qaeda has its hands in the highest ranks of military leadership who make the decisions."
Asked whether this oversight could have been because the officer who gave the orders had made a tactical error or was unaware of Ansar al-Sharia’s movements, Ghazwan scoffed: "If that were true, then that too would be a huge problem, because commanders are supposed to be military experts, not ignorant of the enemy’s movements." Solemnly, he added, "They [military leaders] gave life to al Qaeda once more. It had been on the verge of death."
As for why elements inside the Yemeni government would cooperate with or encourage al Qaeda’s activities, the benefit is clear. The United States backed Saleh’s regime with millions of dollars of assistance for his counterterrorism operations — and it now backs the Hadi government in the hope that it can eradicate the terrorist threat and stabilize Yemen. But elements in the government have an incentive to keep the pot boiling: The greater al Qaeda’s profile in Yemen, the more U.S. dollars flow to Yemeni government coffers. And with the country’s history of rampant corruption, it should shock no one if much of that foreign assistance finds its way into politicians’ pockets.
To the Interior Ministry officer, this couldn’t be clearer. "The authorities get support from outside powers, like the U.S. They catch them [al Qaeda operatives] and then let them go to do other operations in order to extort support from other countries," he said matter-of-factly.
Ghazwan had a more nuanced view. "The issue is that those who collude with al Qaeda are not low- or mid-level officers. Those officers don’t cooperate with al Qaeda," he said. "It’s the highest-level leaders, who don’t actually believe in the preachings of Ansar al-Sharia, but who manipulate them to remain in the government or bring a particular party to power."