In poorest Arab state, war against terror is war without means
LETTER FROM YEMEN:With rebellion in the north and separatists in the south, Yemen is not equipped to combat the rising threat of al-Qaeda, writes CATRINA STEWART
FOR A man who claims he has little to fear in his own province, Abyan governor Ahmed al-Misri looks distinctly unsettled as shots ring out in the garden behind his coastal home.
Still, it seems his apprehension is misplaced. The shots appear to come from his own troops to warn off reporters from calling on influential separatist leader Tariq al-Fadhli, who lives under house arrest just a few miles away.
The incident underscores a complex set of problems facing al-Misri, who rues the day he took the job as governor of the lawless Abyan province in southern Yemen that is fast emerging – alongside the Shabwa and Marib regions – as a safe haven for al-Qaeda militants.
In a frank assessment at his heavily guarded home outside local capital Zinjibar, al-Misri talks of his difficulties in reining in al-Qaeda when the government in Sana’a is diverting troops to fight a rebellion in the north.
“We don’t have enough weapons, we don’t have enough soldiers,” says al-Misri. “Our resources are so stretched that if something happens in the countryside, we can’t respond because there are no helicopters or aeroplanes.”
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has come under intense international scrutiny after a Yemen-based offshoot of al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the botched bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. Some Western observers fear that Yemen is in danger of becoming a failed state.
Deep in the mountains in the north of Abyan, al-Qaeda militants move easily among impoverished Bedouin villages, where unemployment is rife and the name of al-Qaeda unfamiliar to many. Offering religious direction and financial aid, the militants receive protection from tribes and recruit foot soldiers to their cause.
Financing brought by al-Qaeda members over from Saudi Arabia, from which many fighters have fled, has bolstered the movement in the region in the past six to eight months.
Describing how the group secures tribal allegiances, al-Misri says they distribute aid in the form of cash, AK47s and help in building infrastructure, such as wells. “If the government is paying someone $50, they will pay $100,” al-Misri says.
Yemen’s weakened government faces a dilemma over how to face the al-Qaeda threat. It has ruled out bringing in foreign troops and has appeared unwilling to root out militants in the mountains through conventional means.
December air strikes, believed to be US-backed, had tragic consequences when an entire village was wiped out in a remote Bedouin village in Abyan. When a local chief navigated the mountain roads to reach al-Majalah several hours later, he found just five survivors – an elderly woman, three young girls and a 16-year-old boy.
According to al-Misri, 14 of those killed were al-Qaeda; another 45 were civilians.
“If the government doesn’t give a clear apology for what happened, people will turn a blind eye to the presence of al-Qaeda members,” says al-Misri, adding that local leaders have offered their condolences.
Others may be thrust into the arms of the growing separatist movement, which is seeking to throw off what it calls a government “occupation” that has ignored the interests of the south and used its dwindling oil resources to benefit President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his circle.
South Yemen was a separate country until 1990.
Al-Misri estimates that unemployment stands at 50 per cent in Abyan, considerably higher than the estimated national average of 40 per cent.
Said to be so cowed by his enemies that he rarely leaves his home, al-Misri shrugs off the claims and says that an act against him would be an act against his tribe.
Flanked by two pick-ups filled with armed soldiers and a police escort, he confidently takes the wheel of his 4x4 for a tour of nearby Zinjibar.
On the way, he points out the home of separatist leader al-Fadhli, a bullet-scarred building that was the scene of a tense gunfight last July where at least a dozen were killed. Later, al-Fadhli issues an unexpected invitation for lunch.
The governor laughingly offers to drive us there, but then the bravado falters and he warns that it is not safe.
Finally, he agrees to provide a military escort but as shots are heard behind al-Misri’s residence, the lunch is abruptly cancelled. The danger, it seems, is not from al-Fadhli, but the governor’s own troops.
Last August, police were “within metres” of arresting al-Fadhli, a former ally of the president, but a last-minute order from Rashad Al-Alimi, deputy prime minister for national security and defence, forced them to retreat, al-Misri says.
Even so, the government has sought to stress ties between al-Fadhli and al-Qaeda, pointing to the sheikh’s time as a jihadi in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where he met Osama bin Laden.
Separatists have strenuously denied the connection, insisting that the government is seeking to enlist outside help against them by tying it in with a broader war on terrorism.