Yemen: It's All Very Medieval


March 25, 2012: The new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, is, as many expected, having problems with Ali Abdullah Saleh (his predecessor). Saleh has a lot of supporters in the government and among the army leadership. Saleh was forced out of office last month and was supposed to leave the country. But Saleh's corrupt allies were at risk of losing their lives, liberty, and fortunes without their savvy and ruthless leader, so Saleh stayed. The new president, Hadi, was Saleh's deputy for 17 years and got that job for helping Saleh end the 1994 civil war. Hadi is a southerner and more low key and conciliatory than Saleh. Despite his long association with Saleh, most Yemenis see Hadi as a potential solution to many of Yemen's problems. But this is going to be difficult as long as Saleh is still around and demanding protection for his allies in the government and some tribes. This loyalty is admirable but it threatens to cause a full blown civil war. Many Yemenis see killing Saleh as the solution. Killing Saleh would not destroy his faction, which has grown rich and powerful from decades of corruption. Saleh's allies include leaders of powerful tribes and wealthy families. People like this have their own private armies. It's all very medieval in Yemen and that's a big part of the problem.

Former president Saleh's relatives still control much of the security forces. But that will only last as long as they can scrounge up enough cash to pay the troops. Often, even that is not enough. The air force, commanded by a half-brother of Saleh, has been on strike for two months. In effect, the air force has ceased operating since January. The main reason is the corruption of its commander. Saleh's brother had, for years, stolen funds meant for maintaining aircraft. Pilots were ordered to fly the unsafe aircraft, which crashed more and more often. The usual solution to this was to keep aircraft on the ground most of the time. But heavy use of the air force against rebels and al Qaeda in the last year has led to more crashes and, eventually, the strike.

Food shortages, caused by growing poverty and extended violence (between security forces and rebels), have left over five million people hungry. Foreign aid is hard to obtain because attempts to bring in food aid have been met with hostile groups that steal the food or extort cash to allow it to pass. This discourages foreign donors from supplying food aid.  Economic conditions in Yemen have been declining for over a decade, which played a major role in causing the rebellion. A year of unrest has created even more poverty and hunger, which gives more people more to fight about. Those who have the means (mainly cash) are trying to leave Yemen. That's not easy, as few countries welcome poor Arabs, including wealthy Arab states.

In the south al Qaeda has attracted a lot of recruits from unemployed young men. There are a lot of guys in that situation, and al Qaeda's ruthless terror tactics have a certain visceral appeal. Al Qaeda now has more men than it has weapons and tries to avoid direct encounters with the security forces. Many other Yemeni men have obtained jobs with the police or army and will kill to stay on the payroll. Al Qaeda continues to get some cash from wealthy Gulf Arabs (who are Islamic conservatives), but a lot of what they get in Yemen is looted from other Yemenis.

One of the few businesses that are flourishing is people smuggling from Africa to Saudi Arabia. Fishing boats are used to move people (mainly Ethiopians and Somalis) to Yemen and then overland to Saudi Arabia. The migrants pay thousands of dollars for this, but the smuggling gangs are increasingly trying to squeeze more money out of the families of the migrants. In effect, the smugglers kidnap the migrants, usually at the Saudi border, and using cell phones (which are quite abundant in Somalia and Ethiopia) demand more money (often delivered via cell phone as well) to prevent the captive from being killed or maimed. Yemeni police recently rescued 170 of these captive migrants from a tribal compound along the border.

The smuggling gangs are actually groups of separate crews that specialize. Former fishermen get people across the Gulf of Aden while other gangs in Somalia and Ethiopia handle the recruiting. Yemeni gangs take care of moving the migrants to the border and then getting them across it. Gangs in Saudi Arabia can get migrants to Europe or other oil-rich Gulf States (for a price), where there are better paying jobs. This sort of extortion and violence is not common because the migrants eventually get in touch with their families and report on what happened to them. Bad treatment means less business for the smugglers involved.

Down in Abyan province, where al Qaeda has been putting up a major fight for over a year, more home-made bombs are being used by the terrorists. But these devices are often poorly designed or used and few casualties result. The most effective attacks involve guns, which most Yemeni men are more familiar with.

The fighting in the south has caused some 200,000 people to flee their homes. Although nominally between the security forces and al Qaeda, much of the firepower is supplied by tribal militias. Some of the tribes are pro-al Qaeda, some are not. Some tribes just oppose the government. Everyone is upset down south because of increasing poverty and water shortages.

The rebellious Shia tribes up north are receiving cash and weapons from Iran, according to Yemeni, Saudi, and American officials. Several ships have been intercepted trying to deliver weapons to the Shia tribes. It's believed that some shipments got through. The Shia tribes are also receiving regular deliveries of cash, and Iran is the most likely source. Iran denies all of this.

March 23, 2012:  In the north ten people were killed by landmines, which the army uses to discourage movement by hostile tribesmen. Some mines are also placed on the Saudi border. The minefields are usually marked but people try to carefully make their way through them anyway. Sometimes that works.

March 22, 2012: Outside the southern town of Zinjibar army artillery killed 29 al Qaeda men in the last two days. This happened when terrorist locations were identified and the big guns used to attack the targets. To the southeast a senior intelligence officer was kidnapped and killed by al Qaeda. Police hunted down and attacked those responsible, killing at least two of them and losing a policeman in the process. The al Qaeda attacks on military and police intelligence officials are increasing, as this form of terrorism discourages the security forces from collecting information on who belongs to al Qaeda and where they hang out.

March 21, 2012: In central Yemen tribesmen kidnapped three Filipino sailors who were travelling to the port city of Mahra.

March 20, 2012: In southern Abyan province army artillery killed five suspected al Qaeda men.

March 19, 2012: In southern Abyan province soldiers arrested six men suspected of belonging to al Qaeda. Further south, gunmen attacked an army barracks and killed three soldiers.

March 18, 2012: Al Qaeda murdered an American teacher, who they accused of trying to spread Christianity. For Islamic conservatives, trying to convert Moslems is punishable by death. The dead man had moved to Yemen three years ago to teach English. He was very popular with the locals and there were demonstrations protesting his murder.

On the first anniversary of the uprisings in Yemen, it's estimated that 2,000 were killed (mostly unarmed protesters) and over 20,000 wounded.

Outside the southern town of Zinjibar missiles hit several al Qaeda camps, killing at least 16 men. The missiles were believed to be fired from ships off the coast.

In the southern port city of Aden, a gun battle broke out between police and al Qaeda men after an al Qaeda leader was arrested.

March 14, 2012:  In eastern Yemen tribesmen kidnapped a Swiss woman, to be used to obtain the release of other tribesmen held by the police. At first the kidnappers were believed to be al Qaeda. In the port city of Aden police fought al Qaeda gunmen, killing two of them. Al Qaeda also attempted to kill the police chief of Aden with a bomb but failed. Elsewhere in the south, four soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb.

March 13, 2012: In the south fighting between troops and al Qaeda left at least ten dead.

March 11, 2012:  In southern Abyan province missile attacks by American UAVs over the last three days have left over 60 al Qaeda gunmen and leaders dead.




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