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 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).