Yemen: It's Complicated


January 11, 2010:  The war against Iranian supported, Shia tribesmen, in northern Yemen, enters its sixth month. Many of the key rebels have retreated to their fortified villages in the mountains. The Yemeni (and sometimes the Saudi) air force is bombing these villages, and the Shia rebels are complaining about civilian casualties. That's usually a sign that they are losing, and striving to make their use of human shields as effective as possible. But not every village is bombed, as that can just bring another clan into the war against the government. So troops basically scout the area constantly, trying to find where the few hundred key rebel leaders, from the Houthi tribe are, and attack or capture them. That will end the rebellion, as it has done for similar rebellions in the past.

The Saudi Air Force is heavily patrolling, and bombing the Yemen border region, hitting rebels (and non-hostile smugglers) caught crossing the semi-desert frontier region. Yemen has had its differences with Saudi Arabia in the past, particularly over the largely unmarked, and disputed, border area. But on the subject of the rebellious Shia tribes of northern Yemen, both nations have quietly agreed to fight as allies to defeat a common threat. Yemen has not complained about the Saudi warships patrolling the north Yemen coast. There, several boats, loaded with weapons for the rebels, have been intercepted. The Shia rebels are trying to convince Saudi Arabia to negotiate a peace deal, but the Saudis are standing firm with Yemen on this, for the moment.

The Gulf Arabs have united behind Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, against Iran (which denies any involvement, despite much evidence to the contrary). The Iranians have to fear that, if the war runs its current course, and some of the rebel leaders are taken alive, it will come out just how involved Iran is.

January 10, 2010: Fighting in the north left at least twenty dead, most of them Shia rebels. The government patrols the northern province of Saada much more heavily now, as the area has long been the center of Shia opposition.

January 8, 2010: Reports of Somalis fighting with the rebels are misleading. There are over a million Somalis in Yemen, many of them illegal migrants. Some of these Somalis would be expected to join the rebels, especially if there was a free gun and some cash involved.

January 7, 2010:   The U.S. will increase its military aid to Yemen from $70 million (last year) to over $150 million for this year. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world (per capita income of about $1,200 a year, less than a tenth of what oil rich Arabs to the north enjoy). Al Qaeda has some of the oil money, in the form of contributions from wealthy Islamic conservatives, and they spread it around to gain allies, and protection.  

January 6, 2010: Further raids have led to the capture of five more al Qaeda members.

January 5, 2010: The U.S. reopened its embassy, after closing it for two days in response to threats of an al Qaeda attack. Such attacks have happened before, and the chief victims are civilians lined up to get visas and such.

January 4, 2010:  Yemeni police killed two and captured three al Qaeda 50 kilometers east of the capital. This operation kicks off open warfare between the government and al Qaeda. For years, there had been an unspoken agreement that al Qaeda could have sanctuary in Yemen, as long as they did not make war on the government. That agreement has fallen apart in the last few months, and is now officially over. The government is quietly hoping al Qaeda operates like it has in the past, making lots of attacks that kill civilians, thus turning most of the population against them. This would not be difficult, as most al Qaeda members in Yemen are foreigners, and religious fanatics that even turn off very conservative Yemenis.

In Aden, an anti-government demonstration turned into a gun battle, leaving one soldier dead and three wounded. The civilians were protesting the closure of a newspaper that advocated breaking up the country. The government has closed eight newspapers for that sort of thing, in the last year.

January 3, 2010: The government sent more troops to the east, where some 400 al Qaeda members are trying to get Islamic conservative tribal groups to instigate a rebellion.

December 31, 2009: Almost on schedule, rumors spread through the Arab media that the United States was preparing to send troops to Yemen, to root out the al Qaeda operatives based there. The U.S. began a campaign of constant denials, but now most Arabs believe it's only a matter of time before American soldiers enter Yemen and return to Somalia. For the last month, the Yemeni Shia rebels have been insisting that American warplanes have been bombing them. This is accepted as true by many in the Arab media. That story got started because the Saudi air force uses many American made F-15 fighter-bombers. The Saudis also use many Tornado fighter-bombers, which are made in Europe. No reports of Britain or Germany bombing northern Yemen.

December 26, 2009: Abdul Malik al Houthi, one of the leaders (along with his two brothers) of the Shia rebellion, dies from wounds received two days earlier when Saudi aircraft bombed his location in the north.

December 25, 2009: A Nigerian Moslem, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tries, and fails, to set off a bomb on an airliner flying from Europe to Detroit, in the United States. It quickly becomes known that Abdulmutallab had spent three months in Yemen, getting training from al Qaeda.  Yemen says the U.S. did not share what it knew about Abdulmutallab, and thus the Nigerian passed in and out of Yemen unnoticed. Abdulmutallab left Yemen earlier in the month, and his powdered explosives were apparently obtained from al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

December 24, 2009: More raids against al Qaeda. These operations have to be made only after negotiations with tribal elders. Most of the southern tribes are officially hostile to al Qaeda, but factions, and often powerful tribal leaders, actually support al Qaeda. So the government has to move carefully, lest tribal sensitivities are upset, and an entire tribe becomes hostile to the government. There are dozens of tribes and clans the central government must deal with. Some of these tribes have histories going back over a thousand years, and Yemenis take tribal affiliation very seriously. In a country of 23 million, and over 40,000 villages and urban neighborhoods, this can get complicated.

December 17, 2009: Security forces raid known locations of al Qaeda members in the desolate eastern provinces. Some arrests are made, but the most wanted al Qaeda members appear to have been warned , and had already moved. There are many police and intelligence officials who are pro-al Qaeda.

The war against rebel Shia tribesmen became a joint Yemen-Saudi campaign against the common enemy, during the first week of November, when Saudi warplanes used several hundred missiles and bombs on Yemeni rebel targets near the Saudi border. This attack was triggered by an incident on October 14th, when Saudi police caught two al Qaeda members trying to get past a border post dressed as women, and carrying weapons and bomb making material. The two were killed in a gun battle, along with a policeman. The Yemeni Shia rebels have been forced back to the Saudi border, where they initially  hid out among some 60,000 civilian refugees from the fighting.

Then, on November 3rd, a group of Yemeni rebels entered Saudi Arabia and attacked Saudi police, killing one of them. One of the rebels was killed, and the rest fled back into Yemen. The rebels demanded that Saudi Arabia stay out of the fighting. The rebels also called on the UN to help negotiate a ceasefire, but the Yemeni army believed it was close to capturing the rebel leaders, and crushing the rebellion. On November 5th, in response to the Yemeni rebel attack, Saudi Arabia sent F-15 and Tornado fighter-bombers across the border to hit suspected rebel camps.

The Saudis believe that al Qaeda members will try to sneak back into the kingdom, rather than risk capture by Yemeni troops. The Saudis fear that the rebels are harboring a number of Saudi al Qaeda members, and that these terrorists were behind an August 28 attempt to assassinate a senior Saudi official. That attempt involved a bomber who hid the bomb in his ass. You can't get much explosives up there, and the attempt failed. But if it were tried in an aircraft, the results might be catastrophic.

Yemeni troops have been fighting Shia rebels near the Saudi border since August. The Yemeni army has advanced deep into the territory of the tribes leading the resistance. Roads have been blocked for months, keeping food and other supplies from getting to over 100,000 Shia. Over 150,000 Shia have fled their homes.

The Shia rebels have nowhere to turn for help, as Saudi Arabia considers Shias heretics. Iran, however, has long provided moral, and cash, support for the Shia Arab tribes in Yemen. Since the Shia tribes are inland, away from the coast, it's difficult for Iran to deliver anything else. With cash, the rebels can bribe local officials, buy supplies for themselves and their families, and replenish their ammo and weapons from gunrunners. Yemeni troops recently captured three arms dealers, who were not in the area to dispense charity. The soldiers have made it difficult for anything to get through to the rebels.

There are about nine million Shia in Yemen (40 percent of the population) and most belong, like the rebels, to the Zaidi sect. Only a few hundred thousand Zaidi are up in arms against the government, and not all of them are actively resisting the advancing troops. There are another million Zaidis across the border in Saudi Arabia, where the Sunni majority makes any uprising, or assistance to their Yemeni brethren, highly unlikely. The rebels appear ready to go down fighting, and have mountain fortresses that will be difficult to take. This all might go on for a while, but is not likely to end well for the Shia rebels.

Three years ago, the government made peace with the northern Shia tribes, and some of the tribesmen soon ignored their promises to behave. The government is now playing hardball, and demanding surrender, before peace talks begin. If the tribal rebels cannot get pressure from foreigners (the UN, NGOs) to help them out, surrender will be the only option.

The Shia Islamic militants of northern Yemen want to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. In the last five years, several thousand have died in this on-and-off war between the Shia tribesmen and the Yemeni security forces. While Yemen is supposed to be the new headquarters of "Al Qaeda in Arabia" (Saudi Arabia no longer being safe for the terrorists), these Islamic terrorists have been keeping their heads down. Other groups in the south want to break away and form their own "Yemen." But so far, the government sees the Shia rebels in the north as the bigger threat. The dissident politicians in the south are waiting to see how the war with the Shia tribes plays out. And al Qaeda seems to be waiting as well. There has been some gunfire from southern separatist groups, but nothing major. But many of the al Qaeda members have headed back to Saudi Arabia, fearing that once the tribes are pacified, Islamic terrorists will be next on the target list.

The bin Laden family are Sunnis from Yemen, and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda has been brutal in its persecution of Shias. Ironically, the Sunni dominated government of Yemen is quite pro-American, while the Shia, particularly the several hundred thousand followers of Shia radical al Houthi, are very anti-American. While al Qaeda are present in Yemen, rebellious Shia like the al Houthi crowd, are considered a much bigger domestic problem.

 The current battles with the Shia tribesmen have been more intense than the skirmishing of the last six years. Until last year, things had been quiet for two years. In 2005, nearly a thousand troops and tribesmen died, while in 2004 some 400 died. There have been several truces, but the al Houthi supporters keep breaking them. The rebels keep demanding more concessions from the government (which is a coalition of Shia and Sunni groups). What is ironic about all this is that the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Zaidi. But the rebels consider Saleh a traitor for dealing with the Sunni majority.

There are still many Yemenis who have a grudge against the government. Most of this can be traced back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and the north and south are pulling apart again. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.)




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