Yemen: The Other, Bigger, War

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October 27, 2010: Terrorism isn't the biggest cause of death and violence in Yemen, the water shortage and tribalism are. The high birth rate and growing production of Khat has increased poverty and water demands. The water wars rarely get reported, but result in hundreds of casualties a month, many more than from rebellions or terrorism. But the water wars are, literally, the "background noise" in Yemen. The terrorists know how to work the media, to get their smaller number of murders widely reported. Terrorism is news, the greater violence from water disputes is, well, not as newsworthy. But the tribal conflicts over water involve far more Yemenis. While the Islamic radicals capitalize on the power of religion, the water wars capitalize on the power of avoiding thirst and hunger.  The Islamic terrorists have enough guns, and the journalists enough cash, to keep going. But for most of the 23 million Yemenis, water, not Islam, is worth killing for. Most adult males in Yemen own a pistol or rifle. It's an ancient tribal tradition. It used to involve owning a sword or big knife, and there are still a lot of those around. But for the last century, cheap firearms have flooded the country, while unprecedented population growth, and now the water hungry Khat plant, have depleted ancient water resources. For thousands of years, the annual rains replenished the underground aquifers, but the very thirsty, and lucrative, Khat plants have led to the digging of many more (often illegal) wells, and the aquifers are being drained. If this keeps up, there will be no water for up to half the population in the next decade.

The water shortage drives everything. The  activity on the long (1,800 kilometer) Saudi border is an example. Saudi border police arrest over 3,000 Yemenis a week at the frontier. Over 97 percent of these Yemenis are seeking jobs, the rest are smugglers and other criminals. On average, each week the Saudi guards seize over 60 tons of contraband (mostly Khat leaf), but also smaller quantities of  whiskey, hashish, cocaine and  pills (ecstasy, pain killers, others). There's much less smuggling going the other way (500-1,000 head of livestock and a few dozen stolen cars and trucks in a typical week). Given the number of Yemenis coming across, it's relatively easy for a terrorist to cross, because most of those who try to cross, don't get caught. But if you do get arrested, the Saudis have an impressive database of naughty Yemenis and Saudis. With Iraq too dangerous and Afghanistan too far away, the many Jihadi-minded young Saudis are now heading south, to fight and die for Islam in Yemen. The Saudi border guards catch most of these guys, and send them back to their families, or to terrorist rehab (a uniquely Saudi institution, which actually works most of the time.) But most of the people traffic is out of Yemen, as the thirsty and hungry flee an increasingly desperate situation that has little to do with Islamic radicalism.

The government has ordered the seizure of illegal weapons. Adult males are allowed, by ancient custom, to possess a weapon (usually a rifle or pistol). The new law allows the seizure of large quantities of weapons and ammunition. That's the stick, the carrot is paying tribesmen down south to help with the hunt for al Qaeda, as well as providing new weapons to replace the often ancient stuff some tribesmen carry. Despite over ten million rifles and pistols in the country, not every parent can afford to arm all their sons properly when they come of age. So a lot of young guys have a knife, and nothing more. The new government program enables these guys to get properly armed, and have a chance to kill someone. Most of the tribal leaders in the south have, at least publicly, agreed to help the government root out the al Qaeda organization. The government has more guns and money, so the chiefs did what was best for the tribe (even if they liked the al Qaeda concept of religious government and world conquest).

Yemen has many other major problems, including corruption (which makes it difficult to start new businesses and create jobs), an education system that does not emphasize studying science and technical subjects, and does not encourage women to get much education.  Tribalism causes lots of friction and feuding. Crime, by Western standards, is high.

October 25, 2010: Pro-government tribal leaders in Abyan province persuaded fifteen al Qaeda members to turn themselves in. The government believes there are about 400 al Qaeda in the country, mostly in the south, and mostly Yemenis. The government is offering more large rewards (up to $50,000 a man) for the capture of al Qaeda leaders. Many Yemenis see this as an incentive, and the al Qaeda men with prices on their heads stay out of sight and surrounded by bodyguards..  

October 24, 2010:  Police have uncovered several plots to set off bombs in the port city of Aden. This was believed to be an effort to disrupt a football (soccer) tournament next month.

October 23, 2010: About a thousand soldiers and police began searching Shabwa province for anti-American radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. The Americans want this guy, but until now the Yemenis had refused to go get him and turn him over. But that attitude appears to have changed.

October 22, 2010: Al Qaeda assassins killed another intelligence officer on their 55 man hit list. The list was published a month ago. About a quarter of those on the list have since been killed. The purpose of this was to intimidate the intelligence services into backing off. Al Qaeda didn't have the cash for bribes, so they have to rely on bullets. It's unclear if this ploy is working, as the government is capturing and killing more al Qaeda members each week.

October 21, 2010: In the capital, the police arrested ten men, including five Pakistanis, for preaching al Qaeda doctrine of violence and intolerance. An increasing number of Pakistani Islamic militants have been arrested outside Pakistan, preaching or soliciting contributions to Islamic radical causes.

 

 

 

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