Amid Present Challenges What Does the USA Want from Yemen? [Archives:2001/01/Law & Diplomacy]

December 31 2001

Walid A. Al-Saqqaf
No doubt, Yemen has always been, and would continue to be one of the most strategic allies to the USA in the Arabian Peninsula. The strong relations between the two countries continued to strengthen despite the sad events of October 2000 (USS Cole bombing) and the September 2001 terrorist attack in NYC and Washington DC. The USA should realize the importance of keeping Yemen as an ally in the region and prevent all what may cause damage to this highly-important relationship.
At the same time, Yemen also values this relationship and has been emphasizing this on several occasions. Just recently, Yemen honored former US Ambassador to Yemen, Ms. Barbara Bodine with Yemen’s Unity Medal, which is the highest badge of honor to confer by the President of the Republic.
The USA has assisted Yemen in many ways, either in financial assistance through the World Bank or through projects on the ground, particularly in demining.
Yemen has gained a lot from the USA in the form of support of the democratic experience. We cannot forget that the National Democratic Institute was the American Institute that organized the Emerging Democracies Forum, which was among the largest international events held in Yemen.
In brief, Yemen and the USA have always been closely cooperating and they have pledged to continue on this path despite the recent unfortunate developments.
The September 11 Attacks
The tragic terrorist attack against the USA in New York City and Washington DC that killed roughly 4,000 civilians has put the Yemen-US relations to the test. The USA is currently facing a different kind of enemy, as US President George W. Bush said.
This enemy is embodied by international terrorism, that cannot be fought by the USA alone.
According to the USA, the present challenges consist of combating terrorism and preventing future threats that could repeat this tragic event, or any future biological or chemical terrorist attack. The superpower of the world emphasized that fighting international terrorism requires the assistance of all US allies including Yemen.
The USA has openly said that it wanted Yemen to cooperate in fighting terrorism. This request is of great importance because US sees that international terrorism is a global phenomenon that could only be fought with joint efforts of multiple nations. There is no doubt concerning the important role Yemen could play at this particular time and amidst the present challenges of combating worldwide terrorism.
Even though Yemen did not participate in any military coalition with the USA and the UK in their war in Afghanistan, Yemen has still shown good responses in arresting and interrogating suspects of being involved in terrorism. Apart from being helpful to the USA, those arrests are also meant for the security of Yemen itself.
But what are the US demands specifically? What could Yemen possibly do in supporting the USA’s plans in combating terrorism?
It has become well-known that the USA has requested the Yemeni government to carry out a number of arrests of persons thought to be involved in terrorist activities or movements. The Yemeni government responded positively in chasing and arresting some of those suspects. This demand is justified as long as it is based on solid evidence that those arrested were indeed linked to terrorism directly or indirectly.
Despite the confidentiality of this response, local newspapers and media have revealed that tens of Yemenis and Arabs were indeed captured based on this fact.
It is obvious to conclude that the main wanted figures in Yemen would be those who are thought to belong to the al-Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden, who himself still is on the run.
Link between USS Cole and September Attack
It is undeniable that the FBI is convinced that those behind the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole Destroyer, which resulted in the death of American 17 marines, was indeed an act of the al-Qaeda network.
One year following the attack, the Yemeni government continued to insist that it believes that Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with the attack. But the USA stressed that the gathered evidence points to the direction of al-Qaeda.
US officials believe that if the USS Cole bombing and the September attacks were planned and carried out by the same network, then they must be linked.
Hence, it is only logical to believe that the present challenge includes figuring out the links between the two events. This causes yet another obstacle to Yemen’s development due to the fact that Yemen has been calling for the closure of the USS Cole file, which remains as a stumbling rock in front of progress in the Aden Free Zone plans.
The USS Cole incident has cost Yemen heavy losses rising to the tune of millions of dollars last year. This will continue to be the case unless the file is closed. But how can it be closed if the so-far revealed evidence shows that there may indeed be many links between the two events, especially as some suspects are still at large?
The loud voice of Yemen demanding that the USS Cole file should be closed seems to have lowered if not diminished following the September attacks. The USA’s grief is great and Yemen’s understanding in the need to postpone any demands to close the file was expected.
But then comes the question: Until when would Yemen wait for the USS Cole file to close?
Yemeni Public and Present Challenges
One of the main present challenges that faced the USA-Yemen relations during the US-led war in Afghanistan was public opinion. Yemenis had openly started feeling the burdens caused both by the USS Cole and the war against Afghanistan.
The increasing public opposition to the war and to the Yemeni stance towards the victims falling in Afghanistan put greater pressure on Yemen’s cooperation with the USA. President Ali Abdullah Saleh had stated earlier that he was concerned about the killing of Afghan civilians during the US-led attacks. His position is not at all better than the condition of any other Arab or Muslim leader in the world.
Hence, it is clear that the longer time the campaign would take the harder it would be for Yemen to cooperate with the USA. This cooperation, which is quite limited was further confined because of public opinion.
As media, we see that Yemenis are slowly beginning to oppose the government’s silence towards the human casualties in Afghanistan and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict in which they feel that the USA is still adopting a stand favorable to Israel.
Media & Yemen’s support of a US war
The Yemeni press did report on the arrest campaign that the government carried out and continues to carry out. It has also highlighted the delay in the closure of the USS Cole case. But the press in general didn’t say that Yemen is supporting USA’s war against terror.
Is Yemen indeed supporting this war?
Arresting a number of radical fundamentalists thought to be involved in terrorism may as well be a precautionary action regardless of the USAs demands. But it is easy to recall the honey shops that had their assets frozen. Yemen’s reaction was swift in freezing bank accounts of the owners of those shops. This brings yet another indication that Yemen had indeed cooperated with the USA.
If we think of this war as a war that includes the freezing of assets and arrest of individuals linked to terrorism, then one can safely claim that Yemen does support the war against terror, which is not solely the strikes against Afghanistan, but a long campaign against whom may be seen as Islamic extremists.
The opposition press openly criticized the government’s actions and the suspension of the accounts of the honey shop owners, who denied any link to al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. On the contrary, they made a mockery of this claim with tens of cartoons asking “how could simple honey shops with small budgets support terrorism with huge assets?”
Pressure on the Yemeni government is expected to increase after the USA indicated that the two Islamic movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who are seen as idols for Yemenis, are among terrorist groups. If Yemen attempts to crack down on their offices in Yemen, then there could be stiffer resistance from the public and media.
The Future
Until now, Yemen has demonstrated its faithfulness by standing shoulder to shoulder with the USA and the American people right from the start.
But the increasing criticism of the public, the rising voice of some politicians in opposing the so-called US double standards regarding the oppression against Palestinians, and the USAs endless support of Israel are all factors behind a possible change.
Many of the current challenges are critical but one hopes that those challenges would not cause obstacles to the unique, strong, and growing ties between Yemen and United States of America.