By Michelle Shephard National Security Reporter
April 8, 2012
SANAA, YEMEN—Yemen’s main airport closed Saturday and all flights were cancelled amid fears that aircraft would be shot down, upping the tension in a capital already on edge with threats of terrorist bombings and political instability.
But travel to Yemen’s 1st Army Division, past the gates and down a well-paved road, beyond a phalanx of guards and inside an office resplendent with fake rose arrangements, bowls of almonds, raisins and candies, and there calmly sits Yemeni strongman Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmer, at the centre of the political storm.
General Mohsen leads a powerful branch of the army that defected last year to protect demonstrators who forced longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.
He is also widely considered part of the country’s old guard and obstacle for true reform under Yemen’s new president.
During a wide-ranging interview with the Toronto Star Saturday, Mohsen said he has no plans — nor has he been asked — to leave his post.
“No, nothing of this,” he responded when asked if there were negotiations for his removal.
Believed to be one of the country’s most powerful figures, General Mohsen has been described as everything from a kingmaker to a warlord; sometimes friend of Saudi Arabia, sometimes U.S. foe, and always a canny survivor who, like Saleh, has ruthlessly navigated Yemen’s tribal terrain.
“Ali Mohsen’s name is mentioned in hushed tones among most Yemenis, and he rarely appears in public,” wrote Thomas Krajeski, a former U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, in a 2005 cable posted by WikiLeaks.
More recently, John Brennan, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security adviser, mentioned Mohsen in particular when calling on military generals to “set aside their political agendas, and to do what’s in the best interest of the Yemeni people.”
“The time has come for the Yemeni military to be able to be a unified, disciplined, and professional organization,” Brennan said during a visit to Sanaa earlier this year.
Mohsen bristled at the suggestion Saturday that the U.S. found him “unhelpful” in the military’s restructuring, saying he enjoys “good relations with the U.S.
“I didn’t hear this. I didn’t hear this at all,” he said. “On the contrary, we heard positive and excellent things,” adding that it is his forces that are “now fighting against terrorism,” not the U.S.-trained counterterrorism units.
Mohsen, however, listed terrorism as just one of Yemen’s problems — and not the greatest challenge.
“Unemployment first of all,” he said of Yemen’s woes, adding “the population explosion and the economy in general.”
The U.S., however, regards Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the greatest threat facing the West and spent millions training Sanaa-based units under the command of Saleh’s nephew Yahya. Drone attacks in the southern provinces where the group is based have increased dramatically in recent months.
But the scope of AQAP’s influence is murky, as is its connections to a group calling itself Ansar al Sharia that is quickly occupying the south.
When asked to define Ansar al Sharia, Mohsen at first said he believed the group was mainly based in Somalia and moves frequently.
When asked directly: “Do you think Ansar al Sharia is a terrorist group?” he replied, “Yes. Their actions indicate terrorism.”
Yemen is often a place where people say it has to get worse before it gets better.
The year-long uprising, where as many as 2,000 were killed, ended this February when Saleh gave up power, honouring a Gulf sponsored power-transfer deal that gave him immunity. But critics say he is still working behind the scenes to protect his family’s interests.
And few expect the transition to happen peacefully.
The real challenge now for Yemen is how to deal with unpopular regime loyalists such as Mohsen and Saleh’s relatives who hold key military and security posts.
On Friday, tens of thousands of people were on the streets after midday prayers, calling for an overhaul of the military. By evening, it seemed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had done just that — announcing the biggest military shakeup in this country’s history.
But as Gregory Johnsen, Princeton scholar on Yemeni affairs, wrote on Twitter Saturday, “For every action (in Yemen) there is a reaction.”
And among those to lose their jobs in the reshuffle was Saleh’s half-brother, General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the head of the air force.
Several media reports stated it was his threats that forced the airport closure. The Associated Press reported that Saleh loyalists also hit the airport with anti-aircraft guns, while others disputed those claims as exaggerated.
There were also reports that Saleh, the disgruntled former air force commander, promised further chaos in Yemen unless General Mohsen and two other opposition members were removed from their posts too.
If true, these threats could be considered acts of terrorism, Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani al Iryani suggested in an interview Saturday night.
But Mohsen dismissed the prospect of a military standoff, saying the problems could be “solved easily.”
Despite repeated questions, however, he could not explain how to avert fighting amongst rivals except to say he had no immediate plans to step down as part of the compromise.