Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Al-Qaeda could benefit from chaos in Yemen

By Harry Sterling

March 22, 2011

Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi has claimed al-Qaeda is behind the current uprising against his regime. While this delusional claim has been widely dismissed as totally groundless, there is one current hot spot where the threat posed by al-Qaeda to an existing Middle East state's stability is potentially very real, with direct implications for other countries. That hot spot is Yemen.

Although many Arab-speaking states have been challenged by reformist groups demanding an end to oppressive policies and corruption, Yemen's situation differs considerably in significant ways, with potentially serious implications for the global community.

Unlike its regional neighbours, which have confronted widespread demonstrations or outright popular uprisings demanding the overthrow of existing authoritarian regimes, Yemen is also confronting dangerous challenges to its very existence as a unified nation.

Those challenges include a movement in Yemen's south calling for complete seccession, a sectarian fight in the north where a Shia sect is fighting the predominantly Sunni central army and, ominously, a growing threat from the Islamist extremist movement known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, now increasingly active in Yemen and involved in recent terrorist attempts against Western nations, particularly the United States.

Although opposition groups in Yemen were initially calling for reforms, an end to nepotism and a commitment from President Ali Abdullah Saleh (in power 32 years) not to be a candidate again in 2013, the killing last Friday of close to four dozen anti-government demonstrators, with over 100 reportedly wounded by snipers and security forces in the capital of Sanaa, caused even the president's own tribe to demand his resignation.

An opposition spokesman, Mohammad al-Sabri said, "The president must understand that the only way to avoid more bloodshed and strife in this country is for him to leave."

However, given the fractious nature of present-day Yemen and its troubled history and divisions, what's at stake in Yemen goes far beyond the issue of Saleh's departure from the presidency.

Put succinctly, the present state of Yemen is in effect an artificial country. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, two separate states eventually were established, North and South Yemen. The former was called the Yemen Arab Republic. The latter, based in the former British colony of Aden and some neighbouring emirates, was known as the People's Republic of Yemen.

Despite a North-imposed merger of the two Yemens in 1990, differences over the Saleh government's favoured treatment of the North, and the disproportionate sharing of oil revenues, led to a three-month civil war in 1994, which only ended when northern forces captured Aden, once again enforcing its dominance over the South.

The South's resentment of the North's dominance, exacerbated in recent years by falling oil revenues, created an increasingly militant secessionist movement, especially in Aden. The fall of the Saleh regime could further embolden secessionist leaders during a period of instability.

The current fighting in the north (near the Saudi border) between the central authorities and militia of the Houthis, a powerful clan belonging to the minority Zaydi branch of the Shia faith, is another flashpoint with dangerous implications for the central government. The fact Saleh countenanced air strikes against the Shiite insurgents (by Saudi Arabia) has only deepened Houthis hostility. The bombings unleashed a flood of refugees fleeing south.

Although governments far removed from Yemen may find Yemen's volatile internal developments difficult to relate to, no government, including Canada's, can afford to be indifferent to the growing threat represented by al-Qaeda groups in Yemen.

In a sense, Yemen could be described as the spiritual home of al-Qaeda, since Osama bin Laden's own ancestors, and his deceased millionaire father, were born there, and bin Laden has always counted on militant Yemenis to join his war against the West. Thousands of Yemenis fought with his al-Qaeda and Taliban forces during the fighting against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Yemen's al-Qaeda leaders have radicalized supporters in Saudi Arabia and are a main source of illegal arms to Saudi extremists.

The Americans have been targeted by Yemeni Islamist extremists for over a decade, including the 2000 attack of the American destroyer USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. In September 2008, al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassy in the capital.

In January 2009, al-Qaeda supporters in Saudi Arabia announced they would merge themselves with their Yemeni brothers, forming the new group, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In August 2009, one of their militants, Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, attempted to assassinate the Saudi deputy interior minister. Al-Qaeda also carried out plots to plant two bombs on planes en route to the U.S., one carried out by a Nigerian student who tried to ignite an explosive device hidden in his underwear.

A key al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, has become a figurehead for extremists attempting to target western countries. He allegedly was in contact with the U.S. military psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, who ran amok at Fort Hood, Texas, shooting to death fellow American military personnel.

Thus, what's at stake in Yemen is not just the risk the country's unity could disintegrate, but the very real danger Islamist extremists, like al-Qaeda, will take advantage of Yemen's divisions to turn Yemen into a veritable sanctuary for international terrorists.

Even countries far removed from Yemen should be genuinely alarmed if the situation in Yemen deteriorates further.

Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen

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