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Terror Tuesday: Calling the shots in Yemen

Dominating the skyline of Yemen’s capital of Sana’a is the fortress-like Mövenpick Hotel, which serves as a visual marker for what Yemenis term the city’s “Green Zone.”  The nearby Sheraton Hotel is now used to lodge US Marines, while the adjacent British and US embassies hunker down behind blast walls, check points and razor wire.  According to local residents, the buildings in the zone are being connected with tunnels as an added security measure.

Remote from city life and beyond the reach of its inhabitants, the US government calls the shots for the frail government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the president of Yemen who was the sole candidate in the February 2012 uncontested election engineered by the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

There are, of course, good reasons for the US to be so security conscious.  An attack on the embassy on September 17, 2008 caused a large loss of life.  More Yemenis died when the embassy was besieged last year during protests over the anti-Islam “Innocence of Muslims” video.  At the end of last year, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) put a bounty of gold on the head of Gerald Feierstein, the US Ambassador in Yemen.

In choosing to pursue its own ‘war on terror’ aims by ‘partnering’ with President Hadi, the United States is resisting the advice of commentators who know Yemen well.  For instance, following the aborted 2009 Christmas Day plot by the Yemeni-trained ‘underwear bomber,’ the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab,  Patrick Cockburn cautioned President Obama that by stepping up drone attacks and increasing US political and military involvement in Yemen the US “will be intervening on one side in a country which is always in danger of  sliding into a civil war” and that it “is walking into the al-Qa’ida trap.” 

A year later, a report by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill for the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College issued this warning:

Yemen is also an especially distrustful and wary nation in its relationship with Western nations, and particularly the United States. Most Yemenis are fiercely protective of their country’s independence from outside influence, especially from countries that they believe do not always have the best interests of the Arab World in mind. While Yemen’s government is coming to understand the dangers it faces from al-Qaeda, the struggle against this organization is not always popular among the Yemeni public, and any large-scale U.S. military presence in the country could easily ignite these passions and destabilize the regime. Under such circumstances, it is important to help Yemen, but to do so in ways that are not viewed as intrusive or dominating by a population that does not always identify with U.S. concerns about international terrorism….

The United States must not seek to Americanize the conflicts in Yemen, and should avoid sending major combat units there. However bad the situation may become in Yemen, Americanizing the war against AQAP can only make it dramatically worse.

But this is precisely what has been done.  The image I brought back from a visit to Sana’a earlier this month is that US policy resembles using a sledge hammer to crush egg shells, without any sense of where the fragments might land and what the consequences might be.

Reducing human beings with an intricate history and complex aspirations to so many potential targets in the ‘Disposition Matrix’ is obviously not the best way to win hearts and minds. But it increasingly appears to be how the US will engage with the part of the world termed the “arc of instability” now that President Obama has declared in his inaugural address that “a decade of war is now ending.”

Fragile Yemen

So visually stunning is Sana’a – perhaps the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city – and so warmly welcoming and hospitable its people, that it is easy to see why Yemen once had a modest but thriving tourism industry. 

Today, its problems appear overwhelming.  The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen now faces economic melt down.  It was ranked by Forbes “the world’s worst economy” last year.  Its oil and water supplies are in sharp decline, and the two million people of Sana’a are reliant on water being trucked in and transferred to the metal containers that are tucked in alleys and on rooftops.  In the countryside, the water-intensive cultivation of the mild narcotic qat – a staple of daily life for most Yemenis – is sapping dwindling water reserves.

Every day nearly half of all Yemenis go to bed hungry, and are now facing a “catastrophic” food crisis.  The level of chronic malnutrition is “second globally only to Afghanistan,” according to the UN World Food Program. The country has a low literacy rate, a high birthrate and rate of corruption, poor schools and health care, and intense gender discrimination.

It also must contend with the legacy of a brutal 32-year-long dictatorship while the former dictator himself (Ali Abdullah Saleh) remains embedded in the heart of Sana’a and uses his thugs to make trouble; ancient and more recent tribal and family rivalries and land disputes which often take the form of armed conflict; the ongoing rebellion of the Houthi Movement in the North; another ongoing secession and/or autonomy rebellion in the South which, before unification in 1990, was the separate People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen; the displacement of some 400,000 people in the North and more than 100,000 in the South because of the violence; and the metastasizing presence of AQAP (and the related Ansar al Sharia) which, according to Yemen expert Greg Johnson, tripled in size to over 1,000 adherents during the last three years of intensified drone strikes – three of which occurred while I was there.   

Greg Johnsen’s book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia (2013) is a riveting, detailed account of “the rise, the fall, and the ultimate resurrection of al-Qaeda in Yemen,” the expanding American involvement and the heavy price paid by Yemenis for the covert war, especially in the South of the country.

For an interactive visual overview of “fractured Yemen” and the demands of its contending groups, see here.

This is the country that the US thinks it can sort out not just through drones managed by both the Joint Special Operations Command and CIA – each with their own ‘kill lists’ – but through lethal attacks involving piloted planes and cruise missiles launched from US warships, as well as the military force of neighboring Saudi Arabia.

So how do the Yemenis I talked to – and those who plaster the walls with anti-American slogans – view the US role in their country? 

Drone Strikes

“America is the biggest demon”

There is certainly plentiful evidence that drone strikes are inflaming anti-American sentiment and helping swell AQAP’s numbers. Those people I talked to who did not appear to be flatly opposed to the strikes wanted US policy to be more transparent and accountable to the Yemeni people. 

For it is not just the US government that keeps mum about the strikes – in Yemen as well as in the US. The state media never mentions them, and most Yemenis do not have access to other forms of communication.   

Abdullah Haider Shaye is still in prison.  He is the persevering Yemeni journalist who documented the December 17, 2009 attack that extinguished the lives of 14 women and 21 children and photographed the words “Made in the USA” on parts of the missiles that killed them.

On two occasions he interviewed the American Anwar al-Awlaki, who was put on a ‘Terror Tuesday’ kill list and assassinated in a drone attack in September 2011.  His kind of investigative journalism did not sit well with the Saleh government, which for its own purposes had enlisted in the US ‘war on terror.’ State security agents abducted Shaye, threatened to “destroy” his life if he didn’t stop his reporting, and ultimately charged and convicted him with belonging to Al Qaeda.  According to Greg Johnsen, President Obama expressed his concern in a phone call when he heard that President Saleh planned to pardon him.

The Yemeni government’s determination to keep the drone strikes out of the news means that the resentment about their deployment is (understandably, given the range of problems the country is facing) is most deeply rooted in those localities where they have been most prevalent and killed large numbers of civilians, including government officials. The green light given by the Obama Administration last April to the use of broad “signature strikes” targeting ‘suspicious behavior’ in a country as heavily armed as Yemen is bound to ratchet up the civilian death toll.

In those areas – especially in the South – there have been several angry protests.   For instance, when a drone strike last September killed 13 civilians in the town of Radaa 80 miles from Sana’a, hundreds of furious demonstrators, including the relatives of the dead, attempted to take the charred bodies to the home of the country’s new president. 

They were blocked by security forces.  Just a few weeks later, President Hadi, a former army officer with a long record of cooperation with the US military, visited Washington DC and gave drones a resounding plug:  “They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you’re aiming at.” John Brennan – then the overlord of Yemen and now the nominee to head the CIA – could have drafted his remarks.

Yemen’s new president is striving to be a more reliable ally to the United States than his predecessor Saleh, who, in American eyes, did not always appear “the perfect partner.”   One can’t help but wonder how many opponents to Hadi’s precarious fledgling regime have been classified as ‘imminent threats’ to the US and placed on kill lists.  

But even in what is frequently denounced as a US puppet regime there is no unanimity about the drone policy.  One member of President Hadi’s cabinet, Human Rights minister Hooria Manshour, recently voiced her doubts about her government’s embrace of drone strikes. 

"I am in favour of changing the anti-terrorism strategy,” she told a reporter during a human rights meeting in Dubai. "We're committed to fighting terrorism but we're calling for changing the means and strategies. These means and strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations."

According to Jeremy Scahill, whose film “Dirty Wars” just premiered at Sundance, there was one particular drone strike that “shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes” – that which obliterated the 16-year-old American son of Anwar al-Awlaki as he ate at an outdoor restaurant with his cousin, another teenager.

I was told how the death of these boys horrified many young Yemenis, including their friends and classmates in Sana’a.  One can assume that it may also have ‘radicalized’ many of them.

Hijacking the Revolution

Even if the United States were to abandon its ‘targeted killing’ policy as a result of the UN investigation into the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia that is just getting underway under UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson, anti-Americanism in Yemen is unlikely to fade away.  

Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in the streets throughout 2011 and the thousands of activists who camped out for months in front of Sana’a University in what is now called ‘Change Square’ remain bitter at the role the US played in putting a brake on Yemen’s revolution. 

Spearheaded by the Youth Movement demanding that the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh ‘Get Out’ of power, protests in Sana’a and other towns were repeatedly attacked by Saleh’s security forces.  As many as two thousand lives were lost.

As the repression on the ground became ever more bloody,  there were reports that the US was building a secret CIA air base to target terrorists in Yemen and US airstrikes in its  covert war took their steady toll.  During the carnage of mid September 2011, when Saleh’s troops opened fire on protesters and their funerals and snipers picked them off from rooftops, I was told that the US Embassy outraged the non violent demonstrators by calling on  “all parties to exercise restraint” and to “refrain from actions that provoke further violence."  At the same time the US was accelerating the violence with its drone strikes.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the US for a “peaceful transition” inflamed protestors, especially Houthi participants and the revolutionary youth who had camped out together for months in Change Square.  Signed by Saleh in November 2011, the GCC Initiative gave him immunity in return for stepping down and delegating his powers to his vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The deal designated Hadi as the sole candidate in the February 2012 presidential election. 

Widely regarded as the hijacking of the revolution, the transitional agreement was denounced in huge demonstrations which were bloodily suppressed over the following few months.

The Youth Movement regarded the deal as a betrayal of the democracy they had been fighting for which changed little on the ground, since Saleh’s family members and political cronies remained entrenched in the security forces and other key government positions.

As for the Houthi – adherents to the Zaydi branch of Shi’a Islam whose heartland is adjacent to the border with Saudi Arabia – their nearly decade-long rebellion costing tens of thousands of lives has been countered not just by Yemen’s armed forces but by Saudi airstrikes, with emergency arms supplies rushed to Saudi Arabia by the United States, according to a leaked WikiLeaks’ cable.  The United States appears to have bought Saudi Arabia’s allegation that the Houthi are a proxy for Iran.

Given the role played by the US and Saudi Arabia in pushing the GCC Initiative that put a brake on the Yemeni Revolution, it is not surprising that the Houthi rejected its legitimacy.  Many of the walls of Sana’a’s buildings and the cliffs surrounding the city now serve as billboards for the Houthi’s virulently anti-American messages.

Collapsing Sovereignty

Today tents – many of them empty – remain in Change Square, and I was told the revolution is not over.  Some activists are working to organize the impending “National Dialogue” which was called for by the GCC Initiative, but there seems to be no clear sense about how to ensure broad participation in this fractured country.

Instead, there appears to be a growing unease at the compromising of Yemen’s sovereignty.  Meanwhile, the US seems determined to draw no lessons from the first Gulf War, when anger over its stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia helped fuel the formation of al Qaeda. 

"The nation would like to build a new Yemen."

Last September, just days after Yemen’s Parliament unanimously resolved that there should be no foreign troops on Yemen’s soil and that the US Marines should leave, more Marines entered the country.

To what extent are American military moves being coordinated with Yemeni officials?  According to Yemeni journalist Hakim Almasmari:

It is worrying that the US drones strategy is increasing in Yemen and even more worrying that it is happening without any coordination with the Defense Ministry. We have talked to numerous Defense Ministry officials on this and they told us that only very very few ministry officials in Yemen know even details of the US drone strikes, which means that it happens in a very un-institutional manner. And the US is helping Yemen become more of a dictatorship rather than an institutional nation. By allowing the drone strikes and no one knowing about it, this way people cannot stand against it or approve it.

There have reportedly been at least seven apparent drone strikes in Yemen over the past ten days.  As Yemen’s people increasingly pay the price of the Administration’s unmentioned ‘forever war,’ the ranks of Al Qaeda seem unlikely to be either permanently depleted – or defeated – anytime soon.  

This blog was written by Nancy Murray, Director of Public Education at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.