This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! Yemen Fights Terrorism [Archives:1998/04/Focus]

January 26 1998

By: Ismail Al-Ghabiri*
Background: Terrorism has become an international phenomenon which not only arouses fear in the public, but has negative effects on the economies of the countries which are subjected to it, especially in the tourism sector. Two months ago, the world was shocked by the barbaric terrorist attack in the town of Luxor, in Upper Egypt, against European tourists. The event left over 60 people dead. The assumed objective behind the extremist attack is to diminish the Egyptian government’s tourism revenues. Revenues from tourism are considered to be one of the main sources of income for the country. The terrorists’ wish is to paralyze the economy so that it will eventually lead to a change in the ruling regime. The Republic of Yemen has a problem with terrorism, although not really of violent kind. In Yemen, kidnapping of foreigners occurs from time to time. But, despite the widespread possession and carrying of arms in our country, incidents in which a foreigner gets hurt are very rare indeed. The tribesmen, who carry out the kidnapping treat their hostages as their ‘guests’. The reason is that the foreigners are not the target themselves, but merely a way to get the attention of the government.
Goals: The tribes’ aims are often to make particular demands such as asking for the implementation of local projects, or to meet old grievances. The tribesmen understand that the government is keen to maintain the safety of the tourists, as well as its international image. That is why they use the tourists as a way to pressure the government to grant them privileges for which they are not normally eligible. Although no tourists have been hurt and many of them feel excited about being part of a hair-raising adventure and being at the center of international publicity, this phenomenon remains harmful to Yemen’s tourism industry. With freedom of the press and the democratic system’s general liberties prevailing in the country, these incidents are often over-publicized. Many similar incidents occur in other parts of the world, particularly in neighboring countries, with little or no publicity. There is another dimension to this terrorism. In a couple of cases, bombs were planted in busy residential areas in Aden. Although the casualty in lives was minimal, the events created many complications. The government claims that the problem is politically-driven. It says that Yemeni opposition residing outside the country and financed and trained by unfriendly neighbors are behind both kinds of terrorism. It alleges that the neighbors and opposition politicians are out to discredit the system and to de-stabilize the country. The objective is to eventually replace the people in authority.
Counteraction: The government has taken several measures to address the issues, as follows: 1) To eliminate kidnapping, especially that of tourists, security elements are added to the tourist caravans. This cumbersome solution did not work. In part because it limited the freedom of tourists, and in part because of the financial costs involved. 2) Tougher measures were also taken against kidnapping tribesmen. Such measures include besieging a tribe which has repeatedly kidnapped tourists, compiling information on their key actors, etc. These measures have helped to lessen these incidents. 3) With respect to the explosions, a lot of people have been held for interrogation. The security people say they have broken a ring of local and foreign collaborators whose goal was to disrupt the peace and safety of the nation. 4) The fact that the explosions were all in they city of Aden, which is destined to become the Free Zone area of the country, adds an economic twist to the whole affair. Some officials believe that these efforts have exactly the same objectives as the blocking of the oil exploration along the Yemeni-Saudi border. The presumption here is that potential income to the Yemeni government is being cut off. Two terrorist groups are being put on trial for these explosions in two different courts. These trials are open to the public and the media. Tighter security measures have been adopted resulting in a more secure environment.
Long-term Solutions: The real solution for these problems, however, lie in two dimensions:
A) BETTER MANAGEMENT OF THE NATION. Of course, the small counteractions will help, but they will not solve the problems. In my opinion, the best thing that the authorities can do is to manage the system better, to engage in a clean-up of the system. What does this mean? It basically means that transparency and accountability should be the rule. Everybody is aware of the economic hardships that have affected the lives of most Yemenis. This happens at a time when a small minority of Yemenis uses its political influence and power base for self-enrichment. I do not think any person would ask me for examples, for these are plenty. We have many examples of politicians who rob the state just because they are part of the power structure. We have many examples of military commanders, security officers, tribal sheikhs, senior bureaucrats, community elders, and even religious leaders abusing their powers. All this happens because the crooks act with near-complete impunity. If the authorities want to strengthen political legitimacy and enhance safety and security, they should present a system which the general public can respect and defend. The one we now have can neither be respected nor defended. What I am saying is that for the regime to succeed in facing its opponents who try to de-stabilize it, it has to have the moral upper hand.
B) COMING TO TERMS WITH SAUDI ARABIA: The second dimension to the solution lies in reaching agreement with Saudi Arabia. It is clear that Saudi Arabia has a lot of influence inside Yemen. It has over the years bought a number of leading politicians, tribal leaders, and even military officers. Even if that were not true, for the sake of good neighborly relations, Yemen needs to resolve the border issue. As a matter of fact, let me state that President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tried hard to reach out to Saudi Arabia. So, it doesn’t help if the Saudis are not willing to walk part of the distance, even halfway. If that is the case, the President has a duty to bring the whole matter into the open. It is logical that both Yemen and Saudi Arabia will gain from resolving the border difference. They just have to work harder at it. Yemen has embarked on a major political, social and economic transformations. It needs internal stability to achieve success. Successfully fighting terrorism and violence is a pre-requisite.