June 18, 2009: Yemen is dealing with another outbreak of terrorist violence. Or so it appears. It began, sort of, on June 10th, when police arrested Hassan Hussein Alwan, a Saudi Arabian al Qaeda leader hiding out in Yemen (along with most of the other leadership for "Al Qaeda in Arabia.") Alwan was the head of finance for Al Qaeda in Arabia, and apparently a key man in al Qaeda's international fund raising efforts.
Two days later, apparently in retaliation, nine foreigners (seven Germans, a Briton and a South Korean, including three men, three women and three children) were kidnapped while picnicking near the Saudi border. Two of the women worked at a local medical clinic as nurses. Two days later, the three women were found dead, with their bodies mutilated. The government promptly offered a $300,000 for information leading to the return of the captives, and began a nationwide search.
The usual suspects, the Shia tribes that have been in perpetual rebellion for several years, had recently kidnapped 24 medical workers, but released them a day later unharmed. This was what the Shia tribes did, kidnap people to get members of the tribe released from jail. They didn't kill captives, much less mutilate them. At first it was believed that the al Qaeda group hiding out in Yemen had taken the captives. The Shia tribes denied that they were responsible for the nine missing foreigners, or the death of three of them. Meanwhile, new fighting between troops and Shia tribesmen, partly because of search efforts for the kidnappers, has caused over 3,000 civilians to flee their homes.
An Al Qaeda web site then announced that al Qaeda was responsible for the nine people being kidnapped. While al Qaeda has killed Western captives before, they usually drew the line on murdering women. However, the government has put a lot of pressure on al Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Three al Qaeda leaders have been captured in the last two months, and two of them turned over to Saudi Arabia. But there was no real proof that al Qaeda was behind the kidnapping. The problem is that the Yemen government, while hostile to Islamic terrorism, is not strong enough to find and arrest all the Islamic terrorists living in the country.
Last September, al Qaeda in Yemen managed to pull off a major attack, and failed. This time the target was the U.S. embassy, and the fifteen minutes of mayhem included two car bombs and ten or more gunmen. Apparently the plan was to set off the bombs near two of the entrances, then get into the embassy itself. These days, U.S. embassies in Islamic countries tend to be built back from the road, with local police and troops handling outer perimeter security (and U.S. Marines and contractors handling the embassy buildings defense). This attack was defeated by the Yemeni security forces, leaving six of the attackers dead. An Indian passerby was also killed, along with ten other Yemenis (including the American born wife of a Yemeni, both of whom died while standing in line to enter the embassy to get a visa for a trip to the U.S.) Four Yemeni security personnel were killed in the bombing and brief gun battle.
This was a major loss for the Islamic terrorists, as they not only failed in their attack, but killed more Yemenis in doing so. This made the terrorists less popular, a trend that soon leads to their demise. This is a trend that has occurred time and again in the last few decades (in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq).
For two years, Yemen has been increasingly aggressive in rounding up actual, or suspected, Islamic terrorists. In response, terrorists have set off bombs near the U.S. and Italian embassies, and a housing compound for foreigners.
Al Qaeda in Yemen operations had actually peaked in 2000, when a suicide bomber took a boatload of explosives into Aden harbor and badly damaged a U.S. destroyer (the Cole). That attack killed 17 U.S. sailors, and brought down the wrath of Yemeni security forces, for a while, anyway. Since September 11, 2001, the pressure has been steady, and hundreds of al Qaeda members and supporters have been arrested or killed. That has thwarted many attacks, and none of the ones that were carried out were as effective as the attack on the USS Cole. On the downside, convicted terrorists have been able to bribe their way out of jail, although they are often recaptured.
Counter-terrorism experts have long suspected that al Qaeda leaders had long ago put a ban on operations in Yemen, in order to keep the local security forces inactive, because the place is so useful as a terrorist hiding place and a transit node for movement into other areas. The last thing al Qaeda wanted was lots of counter-terrorism activity in Yemen. This is where Osama bin Ladens family originally came from, and he still has kin there. The Yemen government is willing to go along with the al Qaeda "truce", as this is good for the lucrative tourist trade.
But there are too many Islamic radical factions, and not a lot of discipline to be found. So attacks continued. Some Yemeni officials would like to run al Qaeda out of the country. But most officials see this is as impractical. Many Yemenis are quite conservative in their religious beliefs, and tend to agree with al Qaeda. While this is a minority of the population, it is a fanatic one, willing to cause lots of trouble if stirred up.
The September attack led to the prompt arrest of 25 of the usual suspects. The recent murder and kidnapping will probably inflict at least as much damage on al Qaeda.