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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
On terrorism in Yemen 13.VIII.2009 13:26
Yemen, in which I'm currently living, makes the news for pretty much only one reason - violence (with the occasionally human interest story about child brides thrown in). There's the kidnappings, the terrorist attacks, the Shia rebellion, the civil war - a never ending stream of destruction. As I write this, the top story on al-Jazeera reads 'Yemen warplanes pound rebel strongholds' which, it must be admitted, is exactly what's happening. The paradox of it all is that, on a day-to-day basis in the capital, Sana'a, I'm safer than I would be in any Western city, even Toronto, because of the total absence of street crime and, although foreigners have been targeted elsewhere, the capital is perfectly secure. The reason for this counter-intuitive state of affairs is, as always, that the country is far more complicated than the label it's assigned in the media: in Yemen's case, that of a potential failed state and new headquarters for al-Qaeda.

Broadly speaking, there are four sources of violence in Yemen: tribal kidnappings, the Houthi rebellion in the North, 'al-Qaeda' terrorist attacks such as the one on the USS Cole, and the Southern independence movement. The first, targeted at foreigners like me but paradoxically less threatening, is kidnappings. Headline-grabbing though they are, these are essentially harmless: all the laws of the traditional host-guest relationship apply, so you sit around eating and drinking tea with the mild inconvenience that you're not allowed to leave (this being a notoriously hard thing to do at Middle Eastern households anyway). After the government caves in and gives your kidnappers the money/weapons/what have you, you simply go home, as did a Dutch couple kidnapped a few months back. All this started in the 80's or 90's, when the government tried to resolve a few kidnappings quickly by giving into demands, and the tribes realised that this was an effective tactic. It's not at all about harming the foreigners, but about tribal relations with government - and it must be remembered that loyalty to the tribe and family still means a lot more than loyalty to the state, and the central government's control over many of the tribes ranges from loose to non-existence, the former mostly through bribes and appointments. Nevertheless, if you ever see 'Polish-Canadian, 25, held hostage in Yemen' on the BBC, it's almost certainly nothing to worry about.

The second conflict, and the big one right now, is the war against the Houthi rebels in the North, specifically in Saada province, in which hundreds of people have died over the past decade or so. The Houthis are a tribal group occupying the mountains reaches of the north of the country, near the borders of Saudi Arabia, and belong to the Zaidi sect of Shi'a Islam. Until the revolution in 1962, Yemen was a theocracy, ruled by a Zaidi Imam, and the government accuses the Houthis of wanting to reinstate such rule. However, this is far from clear: most everyone I talk to says that no one really knows what the Houthis want, and many express dismay that the government and its well-funded military haven't crushed them already, wondering at some secret motives. This is the conflict that's really serious, and it was in Saada that nine foreigners - Germans, Brits and a South Korean - were kidnapped some months ago. Three have been found dead, and rumours continue to swirl about the fate of the other six.

Though I said above that kidnapping poses no threat to foreigners, this case was altogether different, and calls up an aspect of foreign aid work that is very rarely commented upon: missionaries. The nine who were kidnapped were operating in an area known for violent conflict, and it's said that, in addition to running a hospital, their organisation was also trying to win a few souls for Jesus on the side. We always assume that people who are attacked are either gold-hearted aid workers (as a sidebar, through my travels I've discovered that many aid workers are in fact assholes) or innocent tourists at the wrong place at the wrong time. However, one has to remember that in many places, especially among Muslims, proselytising is deeply, deeply resented; this is not to say that the missionaries deserved to be killed, but one has to remember that engaging in such activity - and bringing your family to help do so - is putting yourself at risk. Similarly, there were a few attacks against Koreans during the beginning of my stay here, and though at the time it just seemed random, but I suddenly remembered a similar incident years back in Afghanistan and the country's large and fervent Christian population and suddenly it all made a little more sense.

Third on our list of Yemeni terror threats we have that symbol of evil incarnate, Islamic terrorism, mostly under the guise of al-Qaeda. This is the one that gets the most play in the press, for obvious reasons, and it's the reason that great swathes of the country are inaccessible to tourists. This includes the Sabaean ruins at Ma'rib, which I would love to see, but unfortunately can't because an attack killed seven Spanish tourists there last year; groups like this were also the ones responsible for the attack on the USS Cole. As in many Arab countries, this is the reason American funds flow to a government that has, otherwise, fairly little public support and even less actual democratic legitimacy. Nevertheless, there is a genuine movement of attacks in Yemen roughly in line with the broader Islamist one

The more interesting phenomenon, however, is that every attack is perpatrated by al-Qaeda. While this is theoretically possible, the fact is that it is in both the government's and the terrorists' interest to say that it was no matter the circumstances. The word 'al-Qaeda' is the 'open sesame' to American foreign aid coffers, its mere mention getting the instant attention of the State department; and point out the fact that if the central government were to lose control, the whole country could become al-Qaeda's new base, thereby negating the so-called 'good war' in Afghanistan, well, that's a nice fat paycheque for the ruling party. On the other hand, say you're some random terrorist, maybe Islamic, or just anti-Western, or both - imagine the instant prestige you get when your successful attack becomes a certified 'al-Qaeda'™ attack. So the government calls it al-Qaeda to get the Americans' attention, and it's not really in anyone's interest to rebut the claim, and so bin Laden's terror network appears to get more and more firmly established in Yemen. That's the problem with the whole treatment of al-Qaeda now - if it ever was an actual network (ie with funds flowing and chains of command), now it's just become something people say to get attention. Of course, it's a brush with which it's hard to tar a Shi'a group like the Houthis - which may be one reason that war hasn't been resolved - but the Saudis have solved that problem by invoking the other Great Evil, Iran, who is supposedly sponsoring them. Nevermind that the Zaidis have a form of Shi'ism no Iranian would recognise - they must be behind it anyway. That'll get the money coming in.

The idea of al-Qaeda ties is one that the government has used sporadically against our fourth and final 'terrorist' group, Southern separatists. Yemen used to be two countries from 1962 until unification in 1990 (which a civil war in 1994 tried, and failed, to undo), the communist South being generally more permissive than the standard Arab dictatorship of the North, centred economically around the port of Aden. Now (as ever in regions with some sense of identity, cf. Quebec), they claim that the north is oppressing them economically and culturally, and demanding more rights. A few people on the fringe want full independence - and of course the government has seized on such 'traitors' to shut down news papers, take political prisoners, and kill protesters for the freedom of said prisoners, as happened a few weeks back. There's really almost no danger from the 'separatists' - perhaps the ludicrous Chinese term for Tibetans, 'splittists', would be better? - and the occasional flare-up, as so many things here, certainly has more to with tribe than nation. However, the government will always use the spectre of civil war and failed state to clamp down, with international approval, on the most likely source of an effective and reasonable opposition in the country.

Yemen is not, by any standards, a calm country, and it's no stranger to violence - a walk down the main streets will see plenty of vendors with clips of ammo, and an AK-47 apparently costs approximately $150. And though the capital is quite far from the conflict areas, apparently last summer you could hear the bombardments of a nearby stronghold from downtown. However, in my view, Sana'a remains perfectly safe, and I in it, and I have the greatest violence I've experienced here was stupid little kids yelling at me about my tallness and long hair. The problem is, of course, that for all the real disasters here - education, poverty, women's rights - the media simply report on the war, the terrorist attacks, the kidnappings and the 'separatists,' without any detail, nuance or sense of the complex way in which all these things differ and fit together, painting a picture that, from my current seat at Abu Ali's teashop staring at the gorgeous buildings of Old Sana'a, is anything but.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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