A group calling itself al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed responsibility for the failed bombing of an Amsterdam-to-Detroit aircraft on Christmas Day. Nigerian suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab told investigators he had trained with al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. An increasing number of terrorism experts suggest that the turmoil in Yemen provides an ideal training ground for terrorists.
Yemen, one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Middle East, was part of a series of ancient kingdoms that controlled the lucrative spice trade from the 12th century BC to the 6th century AD. In the 7th century, Islamic caliphs began to exert control in the area.
North Yemen came under the control of imams of various dynasties, usually of the Zaidi sect, a theological offshoot of Shi’a Islam, after the caliphate broke up. It was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1918. Imam Badr was deposed by revolutionary forces assisted by Egyptian President Gamel Abdul Nasser in 1962, and the Yemen Arab Republic was later formed.
Meanwhile, the former South Yemen, also known as Aden, was ruled by the British from the mid-19th century and was later designated a crown colony. Following a bloody struggle between two rival nationalist groups, Aden declared its independence in 1967, becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In 1972, the governments of the north and the south approved a future union.
The Republic of Yemen was declared in 1990 with Ali Abdallah Salih as President and Ali Salim al-Bidh as Vice President. There were continuous clashes, and civil war broke out in 1994. Over the past five years, there have been intermittent conflicts. Today the government in Sana’a faces an armed rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.
"Yemen is a very tribal society, and the Iranians have been helping the Houthi rebels in the north," says Ed Yeranian who reports for VOA from Cairo. Some of the tribes that are allied with the Houthis have spilled over into Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis started fighting the Houthi rebels after they attacked a border post about two months ago, and the Saudis have been bombing Houthi rebel positions," Yeranian explains. "Saudi Arabia says the Houthis infiltrated over the border and claims the Houthi rebels are aiding and abetting al-Qaida," he says.
But, according to Yeranian, that claim cannot be independently verified. "The Saudis are practically the only ones covering the conflict because no one can get into Saudi Arabia unless they have a visa," he says. "On the other hand, the Yemenis are not allowing anyone up to Saada Province, which is where the Houthis are based," he adds. "And that means journalists can only get second-hand information, although the conflict has been getting considerably worse."
"There is definitely a north-south conflict," Yeranian says, "as well as a Houthi-government conflict." For example, the former vice president of South Yemen has been traveling to neighboring Arab countries, seeking aid so South Yemen can become independent again, Yeranian says. "You also get the sense that a lot of foreign fighters that are allied with al-Qaida have fled to Yemen because the central government has never been very strong," he adds.
"Washington has been very concerned about al-Qaida and certainly does not want to see Yemen fall apart," Yeranian says.
But, according to Yeranian, al-Qaida seems to be only a minor player in the conflicts in Yemen. "A number of Yemenis have told me that the Yemeni government is using al-Qaida as a source of revenue by playing up the threat and trying to get money from its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, who are petrified of al-Qaida," he says.
"The fact that Yemen is sliding into chaos is allowing al-Qaida to be able to operate," Yeranian says, "and the fact that someone has tried to blow up a U.S. plane obviously raises the threat level."
But British journalist Ian Williams at the United Nations in New York, who at one time reported from Yemen, says he thinks the al-Qaida connection is overblown.
"The conflict with the Houthi rebels in the north is tribal in origin. Remember this was the tribe that used to provide the emir of Yemen," Williams notes. "They used to be the in-group, a bit like the Sunnis in Baghdad, and they resent the fact they are not in control and have been neglected by the government in Sana’a." He describes the efforts by both the Saudi and Yemeni governments to suggest that al-Qaida is a major part of the turmoil in Yemen as a "cynical attempt to bring in American support and air power and drones against what is essential a tribal conflict."
The same thing happened in Afghanistan, Williams argues, where local warlords pointed Americans in the direction of their enemies in neighboring villages. "I think the Saudis and the Yemenis are using the Iranians as a bludgeon to get Western support," he says.
Hints of a Proxy War between Iran and Saudi Arabia
But Arab journalist Mohammed Ghuneim, a former VOA Arabic branch chief, suggests that religious demographics may play a role in the conflict. "Shi’a represent about a third of the population of Yemen and about 10 percent in Saudi Arabia," he notes. "And U.S. security assistance in 2009 to the government in Sana’a to fight al-Qaida was more than "$60 million."
The Yemeni government does not sympathize with al-Qaida, Ghuneim says, because it poses a direct threat to itself. "Al-Qaida in general is a threat to the regime wherever it exists because they are bent on establishing a caliphate, an Islamic system that no country in the region would accept," Ghuneim explains.
"The Saudis continue to pull many strings in both parts of Yemen," Ghuneim says. "They support Ali Abdallah Salih, the President, and in the meantime they also support Ali-Salim al-Bidh, the Vice President."
"It is definitely a proxy war because Iran took advantage of the war in Yemen and they support the Shi’a," Ghuneim says. "And the Saudis are against both al-Qaida and the Shia, so they support the other side," he explains.
Meanwhile, Washington has been quietly supporting the government in Sana’a. In the past two weeks, Yemeni forces – equipped with U.S. weapons – have carried out two major raids against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. No one expects the turmoil in Yemen to end soon.