Al-Qaeda in Yemen, a deal gone bad [Archives:2008/1143/Viewpoint]

April 3 2008

The Yemeni government is fighting complicated battles on many frontiers: The Houthis in the North, rebellions and secessionists in the South, tribal power struggle and kidnappings in the Midwest and finally Al-Qaeda everywhere.

According to Nasir Al-Bahri, aka Abu Jandal, a former Al-Qaeda member who used to be Bin Laden's cook, president Saleh cut a deal with Al-Qaeda in Yemen to live and let live. Saleh thought he could close one of the battlefronts this country is facing and ensure that Al-Qaeda would not do any damage inside the country as long as he did not hunt its men down. This explains the escape of 23 Al-Qaeda members from the central political security prison in 2006, and why Jamal Al-Badawi and Jaber Al-Banna are roaming free in the country.

The way Saleh is dealing with this issue is the same way he usually deals with the tribal sheikhs who cause trouble. Unlike president Bush, who “does not negotiate with terrorists” – only makes them – president Saleh cuts deals. When the state “did not negotiate with terrorists” and used force in Abyan in 1998, four tourists were killed because the kidnappers used them as human shields.

Cutting deals was a very effective way back in the seventies when Yemen's stability was non-existent, and when in fifteen years Yemen had five presidents, of whom two were assassinated, two fled the country, while the fifth remains in power because of his intelligent tactics and diplomacy that allowed him to deal with the tribes and remain in power for three decades.

The problem today is that the old ways do not work any more. With Al-Qaeda the problem is that its decisions and operations are no longer centralized and especially with the growing number of extremists who sympathize with Al-Qaeda yet not necessarily belong to it. Even Osama bin Laden disapproves of terrorist activities in Yemen. According to political and media analyst Nabil Al-Soufi, bin Laden wants Yemen to be a “breeding and training haven and not an area of combat.”

The problem with tribal sheikhs is that the allowances they used to get from “neighboring countries” have diminished and so they turned inside, hoping to generate more income through extortion and blackmail. What used to be enough four years ago is not sufficient today. And there are more and more tribes finding amusement in kidnapping to apply pressure on the government.

The problem with the Houthis is that they don't know what they want anymore, and locals have been included in the fight. Many Westerners ask what the Houthi story is, and what their demands are; to be honest, it is not clear any more. Most of the people involved in the struggle have forgotten what they are fighting about. It has become a matter of ego and survival.

And finally, the problem with the secessionists in the south is that there are a few politicians who were cut off during the distribution of power after unification and decided now they want their share of the cake, with interest. They made use of the crumbling security and the multiple fronts the state is fighting on, and decided to add one in order to try and turn the tables around. The sad thing is that they are using people's frustration and anger at the deteriorating living conditions and are mobilizing masses against the state.

This leads us to the final frontier the Yemeni government chooses to ignore because it is not as visible as the other four. However, it is the most dangerous because social unrest could prove fatal for Yemen, and when that happens cutting deals with the influential few will not help, will it?