Yemen: Rampaging Death Squads


October 18, 2012: The new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, has taken a far more aggressive approach towards Islamic radicals than Ali Abdullah Saleh (his predecessor). Saleh was always reluctant to put too much pressure on the Islamic radical groups like al Qaeda or smaller local ones. Saleh apparently thought he could use the Islamic radicals as pawns in his complex strategy of playing one opponent against another to stay in power. It worked for decades until, in the last few years, it didn’t. Hadi decided that al Qaeda had become a major danger to the government and Hadi moved against al Qaeda soon after he took office, and months of hard fighting defeated al Qaeda in the south. This also made an impression on the separatist tribes down there, and they backed off on their demands for a separate state. After taking such heavy losses, al Qaeda has fallen back on its terrorist tactics. This includes trying to blind the security forces by sending death squads to kill key intelligence personnel.

Saleh was forced out of office last February and was supposed to leave the country. That didn’t happen. Saleh's corrupt allies were at risk of losing their lives, liberty, and fortunes without their savvy and ruthless leader, so Saleh stayed. The new president, Hadi, was Saleh's deputy for 17 years and got that job for helping Saleh end the 1994 civil war. Hadi is a southerner and more low key and conciliatory than Saleh. Despite his long association with Saleh, most Yemenis see Hadi as a potential solution to many of Yemen's problems. But this has been difficult with Saleh still around and demanding protection for his allies in the government and some tribes. This loyalty is admirable but it threatens the new president. Many Yemenis see killing Saleh as the solution. Killing Saleh would not destroy his faction, which has grown rich and powerful from decades of corruption. Saleh's allies include leaders of powerful tribes and wealthy families. People like this have their own private armies. It's all very medieval in Yemen and that's a big part of the problem. Former president Saleh's relatives had control of the security forces taken from them last April. That removed the immediate threat of Saleh using force to regain power.

Food shortages, caused by growing poverty and extended violence (between security forces and rebels), have left over five million people hungry. Foreign aid has been hard to obtain because attempts to bring in food aid have been met with hostile groups that steal the food or extort cash to allow it to pass. This discouraged foreign donors from supplying food aid.  Economic conditions in Yemen have been declining for over a decade, which played a major role in causing the rebellion. A year of unrest has created even more poverty and hunger, which gives more people more to fight about. Those who have the means (mainly cash) are trying to leave Yemen. That's not easy, as few countries welcome poor Arabs, including wealthy Arab states. The defeat of al Qaeda has made it easier to move food aid but has not done a lot of revive the economy.

One of the few businesses that are flourishing is people smuggling from Africa to Saudi Arabia. Fishing boats move people (mainly Ethiopians and Somalis) to Yemen, then the refugees go overland to Saudi Arabia. The migrants pay thousands of dollars each for this, but the smuggling gangs often try to squeeze more money out of the families of the migrants. In effect, the smugglers kidnap the migrants, usually at the Saudi border, and using cell phones (which are quite abundant in Somalia and Ethiopia) demand more money (often delivered via cell phone as well) to prevent the captive from being killed or maimed.

The smuggling gangs are actually groups of separate crews that specialize. Former fishermen get people across the Gulf of Aden while other gangs in Somalia and Ethiopia handle the recruiting. Yemeni gangs take care of moving the migrants to the border and then getting them across it. Gangs in Saudi Arabia can get migrants to Europe or other oil-rich Gulf States (for a price), where there are better paying jobs. This sort of extortion and violence is not common because the migrants eventually get in touch with their families and report on what happened to them. Bad treatment means less business for the smugglers involved. Madi has now cracked down on this trade, which mainly leaves thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis sitting in Yemeni refugee camps.

Hadi has also increased cooperation with the United States in the fight against al Qaeda. This meant permission to carry out more UAV search and destroy operations against the Islamic terror group leaders. More importantly, it has brought in more American military trainers and intelligence specialists. Al Qaeda understands what all this means and that is why the Islamic terrorists have been making more attacks (or attempts) against Yemeni intelligence officers and American trainers. Islamic radicals and some Yemeni politicians have tried to portray the UAV attacks as violations of Yemeni sovereignty that kill lots of civilians. But the attacks are carried out with the permission of the government and kill few civilians, certainly far fewer than if the government went after these leaders with ground troops or their own warplanes (which are not as accurate as the UAVs). The American UAV attacks kill a lot of al Qaeda leaders and their bodyguards.  Al Qaeda leaders respond by staying put and surrounding themselves with civilians. But this makes them vulnerable to raids by security forces. So often the al Qaeda men try to move and are often detected and hit while on the road.

The rebellion of the Shia tribes in the north has been quiet since 2009, when the army and Saudi Arabian forces went after the rebels. The Shia tribes stopped major military operations but forced out government officials who did not agree to let Shia tribal leaders do whatever they wanted. As the resistance to former president Saleh grew in the last three years, less attention was paid to what was going on in the north. Now the north has become largely autonomous and the non-Shia tribes up there, who have generally been pro-government, are calling for more aid in their feuds with their Shia neighbors. The Shia tribes are working towards making another bid for complete autonomy, something they lost fifty years ago. Since then Shia Islamic militants in northern Yemen have fought to restore local Shia rule in the traditional tribal territories, led by the local imam (religious leader). This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. In the last eight years, several thousand have died in this on-and-off war between the Shia tribesmen and the Yemeni security forces. That war appears ready to heat up again.

October 16, 2012: In the south (Abyan province), al Qaeda attacked a checkpoint, killing three pro-government tribesmen and losing one of their own before being driven off. The many checkpoints make it difficult for al Qaeda men to move and, more importantly, concentrate forces for a major attack.

In the capital two gunmen on a motorcycle killed an Iraqi general, who was acting as an advisor to the Yemeni security forces. The Iraqi general had a lot of experience in fighting al Qaeda.

October 15, 2012: In the capital someone threw a grenade at the home of the city police chief. There were no casualties from that but a taxi driver was shot dead as bodyguards went after the grenade thrower.

In the south (Lahj province) an air force two-seater MiG-21 crashed as it took off on a training flight. The trainee pilot survived but the instructor pilot colonel Atiq al Akhali was killed. MiG-21s are prone to crashing but what made this incident noteworthy was the fact that Atiq al Akhali was one of twelve Yemeni pilots that the Yemeni al Qaeda had put a bounty on (for air attacks against the terrorists). Anyone who killed Akhali was to receive $5,000 from al Qaeda. This accident is being investigated to see if there was any sign of sabotage.  

October 11, 2012: In the capital a senior Yemeni security official at the U.S. embassy was murdered by two men on a motorcycle. This was seen as an al Qaeda effort to weaken security at the American embassy, perhaps in preparation for an attack. The dead man had worked at the embassy for eleven years and took care of collecting intelligence about possible threats (to the embassy or embassy personnel) in the neighborhood.





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