Counter-Terrorism: Yemeni Shia Strike Back

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February26, 2007: In the last week, at least fifteen Yemeni soldiers, and twice as many rebel tribesmen, have died in several gun battles. Yemen has a war going on with one of its Shia tribes, and there seems no end to it. While Yemen is the original home of the bin Laden family, and harbors many al Qaeda fans, it also has a religious conflict between radical Shia tribes, and pro-al Qaeda Sunni Yemenis. There is also an ongoing insurrection by followers of Shia religious leader Hussein al Houthi.

A year ago, soldiers and Shia tribesmen fought a battle near the Saudi border. The fighting was over control of a fortified compound, and left five soldiers and fifteen tribesmen dead. The Shia fighters are followers of Shia Islamic radical cleric Hussein al Houthi. This battle was brought about because of an ambush, a week earlier, by tribesmen. Three soldiers were killed, and reinforcements were called in to track down and arrest the al Houthi supporters. A week before that, there was another clash, with the tribesmen being chased off.

The battles with the Shia tribesmen have been going on for years, but has been more intense in the last three years. Last year, things were relatively quiet, but in 2005, nearly a thousand troops and tribesmen died, while in 2004 some 400 died. There is supposed to be a truce, but the al Houthi supporters broke it two years ago, as a new leader of the group sought to get concessions from the government (which is a coalition of Shia and Sunni groups).

The Shia of Yemen are not mainstream Shia, but a sect called the Zaydis. There are about a million of these Shia in Yemen, and they dominate the northern part of the country. Overall, about fifteen percent of the 19 million people in Yemen, are Shia. The rest are mainstream Sunni. In nearby Saudi Arabia, Shia are considered heretics. 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 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.

 


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