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    Middle East
     Sep 25, 2008
Al-Qaeda uses Yemen as springboard
By Olivier Guitta

Sanaa, Yemen's capital, was again the scene of a terrorist attack on September 17. Since al-Qaeda missed the US Embassy with mortars in March, it has been set on another attack on the same target.

This time the attack was much deadlier, killing 18. It also occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, considered by jihadis to be the best time to perpetrate acts of terror.

The choice of Yemen is far from surprising as it is still an al-Qaeda hotbed. Yemen, a bit like Pakistan, has ongoing difficulties with militancy.

After the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 in Aden, and


especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Yemen was told to step up its attempts to fight Islamist terrorism. The results have been a mixed bag, and while Sanaa has from time to time militarily engaged the Islamists, it has more often appeased them.

In 2003, the Yemeni regime concluded a non-aggression pact with al-Qaeda. But it seems that the deal has been off since the beginning of this year. Appearing officially in January under the label "Al-Qaeda in the south of the Arabian Peninsula - Brigades soldiers of Yemen", the local al-Qaeda branch has already claimed numerous attacks against security forces.

The Italian Embassy was attacked in April, and since then most Western countries have decided to "bunkerize" their buildings in Yemen. The US has reduced its presence in the country to a bare minimum, and the French ambassador has permanent bodyguards, like in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Tourists are strongly advised not to travel to Yemen. Some expatriates are not allowed to venture out of the capital or go to certain neighborhoods, except when they have a specific task and an armed guard.

In the past month, Yemeni authorities have been more aggressive in fighting al-Qaeda's resurgence. In August al-Qaeda leader Hamza al-Quayti, who was one of a gang of 23 that escaped from prison in February 2006, was killed by security forces in eastern Yemen. Other members of his cell were killed during the operation.

The Yemeni Defense Ministry said the activists had formed a cell that "planned to carry out terrorist attacks in Yemen and abroad". Police found explosives, documents and Arab passports (including two Saudi ones). This cell was responsible for an attack that killed eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni guides in July 2007.

This group was also responsible for a suicide attack on July 25 that killed a policeman and wounded 17 people in Sayun, in the region of Hadramout - Osama bin Laden's homeland. It also planned an attack against oil installations in Marib in 2006 that was foiled.

But that is not all: al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility in a communique for piracy operations that took place during the past year, off Yemen and Somalia. The communique stressed that "orders were given to the mujahideen to monitor maritime waterways, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula".

Maritime terrorism requires, according to the document, "a new strategy which permits the mujahideen" to hijack commercial, tourist and oil vessels. According to this strategy, "fighters who aspire to establish the caliphate must control the seas and the waterways".

In attacking the over 2,400 kilometer-long Yemeni coast, al-Qaeda intends to take control of the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance of the Red Sea. The location of this region, stuck between the Arab/Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, is strategic for al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda believes that "the enemy will not be able to protect its bases scattered on land in the Arabian Peninsula, and subject to mujahideen attacks, if its waterways were weakened by acts of piracy".

But al-Qaeda is not the only threat the regime faces: a more daunting challenge is the fight against several tribes that jeopardize the stability of the country. The main enemy has been for four years the Shi'ite Huthis (a minority in the majority Sunni country).

The Huthis, supported by the Iranian mullahs, have been attacking the regime of President Ali Abdallah Saleh - a Shi'ite himself - which they accuse of selling the country to the US and Israel.

So, between the blows of al-Qaeda and the "representatives" of Iran, Yemen is really at the heart of the double-thronged war against Sunni and Shi'ite fanatics. Hopefully the regime has decided to wage war on both these fronts.

Olivier Guitta, an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a foreign affairs and counterterrorism consultant, is the founder of the newsletter The Croissant (www.thecroissant.com).

(Copyright 2008 Olivier Guitta.)

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