Yemen: Death Squads Versus Death From Above

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August 25, 2013: The new government is having a hard time running the country, in part because it doesn’t have the extensive network of tribal allies and access to tribal leaders (for making deals) the deposed Saleh government had. Over the decades in power Saleh built this network, as well as a growing alliance of bitter foes. Eventually there were more enemies than allies and Saleh was out. But the new government has plenty of enemies (separatist tribes in the south and Shia ones in the north demanding more autonomy) and economic problems (a growing water shortage, massive corruption, poverty, and a dysfunctional economy). There are no easy solutions to any of this, although the Arab oil states to the north and the West (in general) will provide aid if the government will make a real effort to reduce the al Qaeda presence. Saleh had earned the enmity of the Gulf States and the West for exploiting the al Qaeda presence in order to obtain more aid (which Saleh and his cronies plundered). That’s the main reason Saleh got so little foreign help when the Arab Spring arrived.

The new government has been made to understand that these Saleh era ploys are strictly forbidden now and that it is in everyone’s best interest to crush al Qaeda. The terrorists seem to understand that and have responded by sending their death squads after senior government officials more than they ever did when Saleh was in power. There are also indications that al Qaeda is moving some of its operations from Yemen to Pakistan (where the local government is still willing to make deals with terrorists).

Al Qaeda in Yemen has taken quite a beating in the last year, losing at least a third of the thousand or so operatives it had before the government offensive. The American UAV surveillance and missile attacks have been particularly damaging and there is less danger of that in Pakistan, where the terrorists have managed to generate a lot of popular opposition to the UAV operations. Not so in Yemen, where most of the population sees the UAVs as an easy way to get back at the terrorists, whose attacks mainly kill civilians. The UAV attacks are much more precise and most of them take place in the thinly populated back country. Most of the terrorist attacks are in heavily populated areas. Many Yemenis may be illiterate but most can count.

Then there are the Americans and their death-from-above tactics. Since 2010, there have been over 90 UAV attacks in Yemen, leaving over 600 dead. 4 of the victims were top al Qaeda leader and about 100 others were key technical experts or middle-management. Most of the remainder were low-level terrorists, pro-terrorist tribesmen, or terrorist kin. Many terrorists have their families with them in Yemen, despite the risk of the wives and kids getting caught in the crossfire (on the ground from Yemeni soldiers and police or from the air). American UAV attacks have grown in the past three years. In 2011, there were 18 attacks and 53 last year. This year there are, so far, even more (at least eight this month alone). Al Qaeda is encouraging its tribal supporters to hold anti-UAV demonstrations for the media. The American UAVs and their missile attacks have been doing serious damage to the terrorists. This is because the tactic of seeking out and capturing or killing terrorist leaders and technical specialists (pioneered by the Israelis in their 2000-2005 campaign against Palestinian terrorists) has been very successful.

On the Saudi border work continues on a security fence that many Yemenis living near the border object to. The two countries only agreed on exactly where their border was in 2000, although there is still some disagreement because Yemeni tribes living along the border have kin on the other side and often Yemeni tribesman own farm or pasture land on the other side as well. They consider their ability to freely cross the border a right and sometimes violently object to the new Saudi fence. Technically, the Saudis agreed to halt construction of the fence several years ago but in practice they continue the work, and recently this has resulted in attacks on the workers and Saudi security personnel by some Yemeni tribesmen.The Saudis simply shoot back and keep building the fence, which is part of a plan to greatly increase border security.

In the last three years Saudi Arabia has been successful at improving security on their 1,800 kilometer long Yemen border. This was necessary to stop the growing number of people trying to sneak into Saudi Arabia. Most of these border crossers are economic refugees. Two years ago the border guards were catching over 20,000 a month, but now that is down to about 4,000. Two or three percent of them are smugglers, who are arrested and their goods (often drugs like hashish) confiscated. The economic refugees are sent back, unless they are suspected of being Islamic terrorists. Those suspects account for less than one percent of the people the border patrols catch. With the war over in Yemen, most of the economic refugees headed for Saudi Arabia are Africans (mainly Somalis and Ethiopians) looking for work. More of the crossers are smugglers, who sometimes bring known Islamic terrorists in. This doesn’t happen very often because there has been much less Islamic terrorist activity in Saudi Arabia in the last six years. The police have a good informant network and it has become difficult for the Islamic terrorists to operate. Most of those who sneak back in are either passing through or retiring from the Islamic radical life.

The government has sent troops to assist mediators trying to negotiate peace between Sunni and Shia tribesmen in the north. In the last month there have been dozens of casualties as well as kidnappings because of the dispute which is partly traditional (land and personal feuds) and partly religious (Islamic conservative ideas among the Sunni tribes has led to “jihad” against the “heretical” Shia tribes that dominate the north).

Outside the capital a terrorist bomb aboard an air force bus killed at least a dozen air force cadets.

August 23, 2013: In Central Yemen (Taiz) a Saudi man was kidnapped. Police on both sides of the border quickly concluded that this was not terrorism or tribal politics because the victim was a notorious drug smuggler who was apparently taken by some fellow gangsters that he was having a dispute with.

In the southeast (Hadramout province) a suicide car bomber went off at a checkpoint, killing two soldiers and wounding three others. Gunmen then attacked but were driven off. Al Qaeda was suspected because they use suicide bombers and tribal rebels do not.

August 22, 2013: The government openly apologized to the southern Sunni Arab separatist tribes and the northern Shia tribes for the wars against them carried out by deposed president Saleh. The government says these wars (since the 1990s) were the wrong approach to the independent minded tribes in the north and south and in the future less violent means would be used to resolve the disputes. The northern Shia have been pretty quiet since Saleh was deposed last year, but the southern tribes hooked up with al Qaeda and some of them are still in a violent mood.

August 21, 2013: In the south (Aden) an al Qaeda death squad killed a senior intelligence official and his son. The terrorist leadership see these killings as the best way to protect themselves from getting killed by American UAVs. By themselves, the UAVs have a hard time tracking down key terrorist officials and specialists, but with the aid of Yemeni informants on the ground the right targets can be found and hit with missiles.

August 20, 2013: The U.S. reopened its embassy compound, which had been closed on August 4th in response to a terror scare. That was triggered when U.S. intelligence intercepted a phone call between al Qaeda head Al Zawahiri and AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) boss Nasser Al Wuhaishi on July 29th. The two men mentioned a terror operation to be carried out mainly by AQAP, described as something “that will change the course of history.” The U.S. responded by closing most of its diplomatic facilities in the Middle East for several days to two weeks. Many Western allies of the U.S. agreed with this assessment and followed suit. When Yemeni intelligence officials heard the details of this they interpreted the discussion between Zawahiri and Wuhaishi differently, seeing it as more wishful thinking and boasting than practical planning. Some Western intel analysts agreed with the Yemenis but Western counter-terror officials tend to err on the side of extreme caution. Better to overreact many times and be wrong than to underreact once and suffer a major attack. Yemeni forces did seek out evidence that AQAP was planning something major and found that the terrorists had built two suicide truck bombs, each containing over five tons of explosives. One of these was destroyed before it could attack an oil terminal in the southeast. The other was apparently headed for the capital but the security forces lost track of it. However, the crew that were responsible for getting the truck into the capital was broken up and several members arrested.

August 19, 2013: In the capital someone tossed a grenade into a market, killing one man.

August 14, 2013: In the southwest (Lahj province) troops surrounded about 70 al Qaeda fighters in abandoned homes and lost three soldiers to sniper fire as commanders tried to arrange the surrender of the terrorist gunmen.

August 11, 2013: In the south (Shabwa province) five soldiers guarding an oil facility were killed while fighting off an al Qaeda attack. 

 

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