The Silent Hand of Saleh

Was the security lapse at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa a move by Yemen's former president to show America who still calls the shots?


SANAA, Yemen — As black smoke billowed into the sky above the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Thursday, Sept. 13, demonstrators hacked at the thick glass windows of the security office entrance with pick axes. To the cry of "Death to America!" the angry mob burned an American flag and set SUVs alight inside the heavily guarded compound.

But something was not quite right. How had a few hundred unarmed protesters managed to breach the security of one of the most fortified embassies in the world?

The beginning of the answer to that question lay at the outer perimeters of the security cordon and at roadblocks on the streets approaching the U.S. embassy.

As protesters stood chanting on low concrete blocks designed to stop vehicles approaching the compound, Yemen’s Central Security Forces, in their camouflage uniforms, blue berets, and distinctive bright blue-and-orange arm patches looked on. Fifty-caliber machine gun "dushkas" mounted on the back of pick-up trucks, stationed under sun-protecting shelters, menacingly faced the crowd.

Then, without so much as a raised hand from the soldiers, protesters walked straight though the gaps between the yellow and black striped blocks. Like a gentleman holding a door open for a lady, the soldiers, with their AK-47s slung over their shoulders, stepped back, letting the chanting mob through. And as the angry mob marched further towards the embassy building itself the soldiers walked with them, some even smiling.

Yemen’s Central Security Forces, created by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, remain under the command of his nephew Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh, who enjoyed a warm relationship with the U.S. embassy here in Sanaa for years. The U.S.-trained and funded counterterrorism troops also fell under his command. The relationship had been a necessary close one in America’s strategy to combat the country’s notorious al Qaeda network.

On the day this February when his uncle handed over power to the country’s new president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi, at the presidential palace, Yahya and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein greeted each other like old friends. With laughter and a firm, lingering handshake, they clasped each other’s elbows in the midst of a packed room of dignitaries and a throng of domestic and international media.

Since February, however, things have slowly begun to change in Yemen’s security forces. The powerful extended-family network of commanders — created by Yemen’s former ruler — has been eroded. Hadi’s presidential decrees, released over recent weeks and months, have shifted military leaders to lesser positions and altered the long-standing alignment of control in the country’s divided armed forces. During a year of political unrest, Yemen’s army split following the massacre of 53 demonstrators in Sanaa’s Change Square on March 18, 2011. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, one of the country’s most powerful commanders, defected, throwing the weight of his First Armored Division behind the anti-Saleh protest movement.

After an attempt on Saleh’s life in June 2011 saw the injured president whisked away to neighboring Saudi Arabia for much needed medical care, the two sides of the army eventually came to blows. In September, when the violence peaked, civil war seemed almost inevitable. But following Saleh’s surprise return to Sanaa, resulting in further bouts of fighting, he finally agreed to step down in November 2011, handing power to his long-standing vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansu Hadi. Dramatic changes in the structure of Yemen’s military appeared essential to the process of political transition and the survival of his successor.

But it hasn’t been an easy transition: In April 2012, when Saleh’s half-brother and commander of the air force, Gen. Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, refused to step down, pick-up trucks full of gunmen, protesting his sacking, forced the closure of the Sanaa airport, which also acts as Yemen’s primary air force base.

So far, Yahya has largely managed to avoid much of the impact of the recent changes: He has yet to have his power undermined by being either being sacked from his position or moved to a lesser role, unlike his cousin, Tareq Saleh, who was previously head of the Presidential Guard and decided to retire rather than accept a new post under Hadi’s reforms. But the future prospects of Yahya maintaining his command look bleak. And Yemen’s ruling clans don’t go down without a fight; many here expected, and still anticipate, a backlash from the Salehs. And with the former president still living in central Sanaa, the presence and influence of his 33-year-long reign remains.

Collusion between security forces and the Saleh family over Thursday’s events at the U.S. embassy in Sanaa would not be the first of its type. The supposedly spontaneous protests bore a striking resemblance to an embassy siege in Sanaa last year that many believe was orchestrated to prove a point.

Amid growing protests in Sanaa, on May 22, 2011 — Yemen’s day of celebration for unification with the south — the international community was expecting Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign the Gulf Cooperation Council deal that would see him hand over power. As Sanaa’s foreign diplomats eagerly gathered in the United Arab Emirates embassy building, an angry mob arrived outside. In an apparent protest at the prospect of an end to Saleh’s presidency, men wielding AK-47s and traditional jambiya daggers trapped the ambassadors inside. Only a blatant disregard for external security, with soldiers choosing to look the other way, would have made such an event possible.

The siege ended only when Saleh valiantly sent his helicopters in to pluck the foreign dignitaries from the roof of the building in a serial rescue mission. The whole scenario felt like a scripted movie scene that even Hollywood would have scoffed at being just too far-fetched. But this was a classic Saleh plot. It would be another six months, under increasing pressure and after all-out war had broken out in the capital, before he eventually relinquished and signed the agreement to transfer power.

Hadi’s relationship with the United States has already proved to be stronger than his predecessor’s in the eyes of Washington. U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan boasted about the better-than-ever relationship in a speech in August saying, "since President Hadi has assumed the presidency, there is a new determination, a new consistency in terms of what the Yemeni government is doing on counterterrorism." Any undermining of that relationship, say a well-timed attack on the U.S. Embassy, could play into the hands of the Salehs, particularly Yahya, whose position in Yemen’s military is under threat with Hadi’s ongoing restructuring plans.

Following Thursday’s scenes in the northeast of the capital, even President Hadi himself eluded to the ease with which demonstrators were able to breach security. In a statement released in apology to the United States and Barack Obama, he added that the storming of the U.S. embassy compound  "highlighted that the divisions among Yemen’s security and military forces…have contributed to the amplification of the incident."

Conspiracy theories abound in Yemen, cemented by a three-decade-long opaque system of governance and a heavily partisan and polarized press. And the rumors are flying that a little well-timed chaos seems a perfect cover for the continued meddling of the Salehs in Yemen’s fragile period of political transition. Perfect, so long as it doesn’t get way out of hand.

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