Yemen: Tipping Is Mandatory


November 10, 2010: Saudi Arabia reported information about the al Qaeda air freight bomb plot to the United States, not Yemen, a month ago. The Saudis found out via a Saudi member of al Qaeda who had been recruited as a double agent. Now that this is out in the open, so is a sense of the degree to which Saudi influence, and cash, has penetrated Yemen. This is something Yemenis have a hard time getting used to. For thousands of years, until fifty years ago when Saudi oil money became a factor, Yemen was the wettest, wealthiest, most populous and most powerful part of the Arabian peninsula. Yemen still has its rain, but all that oil money has put more people to the north, where the oil is. Yemenis resent this change, and older Yemenis still remember when the tribes to the north were considered a bunch of impoverished desert bumpkins. Yemenis had always respected, and traded with, those from the few cities in the north. But now all the northerners are wealthy, better armed and cocky. But some of the Saudis make the best of the situation, show respect, and form mutually beneficial relationships with tribal leaders in Yemen. It's not enough to just bribe a Yemeni tribal chief, you have to become his friend. Otherwise he will take your money and feed you garbage. Over the last two decades, Saudi diplomats and security officials have gotten good at cultivating, and enriching, influential Yemenis. They share these insights, which are often greatly complicated by tribal feuds and animosities, with their American allies.  Few Americans can fully appreciate the richness and complexity of these Saudi-Yemeni relationships, but these connections are the most powerful weapons in the war against Islamic terrorism in Yemen. The Saudis not only provide a constant stream of useful intelligence, but also influence with some key tribes, that can sometimes persuade Yemeni tribal chiefs to help out against al Qaeda, or in favor of the Yemeni government (which is basically a tribal confederation that is always in danger of coming apart.)

What the Saudis and Americans (and, to a lesser extent, the Yemenis) are after are a few dozen key Islamic terrorists who have technical (bomb making, propaganda) or leadership (organizing the less skilled terrorists) skills, and can put together attacks, or build tribal relationships that can mobilize local gunmen to protect terrorists from other tribes or the government security forces. The U.S. wants to start using its Predator and Reaper UAVs, which have been operating over Yemen for over a year, to fire Hellfire missiles at these key terrorists. This has worked in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but local opponents will make a big deal about foreigners making war inside Yemen.  These propaganda efforts don't get a lot of traction because there are no foreign troops visibly involved. It's all just machines, with the terrorists just suddenly, and unexpectedly, blowing up. You can get away with this, at least that's been the case in Pakistan. However, the Yemenis fear that non-terrorists might be killed, and cause more tribal troubles.

The Yemeni government has proposed that the United States provide $6 billion worth of military aid over the next two years. That's more than five times what the Americans have proposed. While the Yemenis would like to equip their forces with lots of modern American stuff, they also want to steal a lot of that money, and share some of its with tribal leaders that will help keep the Islamic militants under control. Some Americans understand that this is how things are done in this part of the world, but bribery and embezzlement are often a hard sell back home.

The Americans also want to get more for their money. The Yemenis tend to demand a high price for timely access to information or prisoners. Hard bargaining is required to fix this, and Americans have a shortage of people who can even conduct these negotiations. The Saudis have been useful in this area, but even here, some payment is required. Tipping is not suggested in Yemen, it is mandatory. And you have to do it politely.

Now that al Qaeda in Yemen has demonstrated an ability, and inclination, to use air freight bombs, the most cost effective to deal with this is to halt all air freight from Yemen to the West (which is not a lot of packages). This is not a perfect solution, as the terrorists can smuggle the bomb equipped packages to nearby countries and mail them from there. In response to this, neighboring countries are either refusing, or carefully examining, any parcels coming out of Yemen. In theory, you can screen all packages for bombs, but in practice this would drive up the cost of air freight, and delay shipments, to the point where the entire freight industry would have to reform itself. This would have far reaching economic impact, and few politicians have been willing to risk such a mess by insisting on screening all packages.

Al Qaeda loves this stuff, but they have been unable to play the "air freight bomb" card so far because, despite the thousands of full time Islamic terrorists around, most are either too illiterate, too disorganized or too mentally unstable to pull it off. That may be changing, unless the Yemenis can be persuaded to hunt down and kill or capture the Islamic terrorists behind the latest bombing attempt.

November 9, 2010: In southern Shabwa, home of the Awliki tribe, gunmen killed a senior officer  of the intelligence service. These guys are being targeted by the terrorists and hostile tribes, as intelligence, and people who can obtain it, are crucial elements in this low level war.

November 8, 2010: Radical cleric, Anwar al Awlaki has posted another video message on the Internet, where he calls for more attacks on the West, and in particular for the killing of Americans.

November 6, 2010: Yemen has ordered the capture, dead or alive, of radical cleric, Anwar al Awlaki. But he is protected by the powerful Awlaki tribe, and government would prefer not to upset the house of cards (networks of tribal relationships) that keeps Yemen sort-of-united, by making war on the Awkaki tribe. Nevertheless, the government is making a show of having more troops and negotiators sent to Shabwa province in southern Yemen, to do what they can (and placate the Americans).

November 5, 2010:  Al Qaeda admitted they were responsible for the two air freight bombs that were intercepted and disarmed before they could reach the United States or go off.  They also took credit for the recent crash of a parcel freight transport in the region. But this was dismissed, as Islamic radicals often take credit for causing local air crashes. The investigations eventually make it clear that bombs had nothing to do with these crashes. But the terrorists know the value of a cheap headline.

November 4, 2010: YouTube took down hundreds of videos by radical cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, in which he urges Moslems to kill infidels (non-Moslems). YouTube doesn't like to censor, but several governments made a compelling case that the Awlaki videos had led to several violent incidents. In southern Yemen, a car bomb went off, killing two people.

A recent attempt to destroy part of a pipeline in southern Yemen was not a terrorist act, but part of a feud between two local tribes.


Article Archive

Yemen: Current 2023 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close