Tiny Minority of Extremists Update: the president of Yemen can’t be too tough on terrorism, or he risks losing power altogether in a country where Osama bin Laden is a matinee idol and John Walker Lindh went to learn Arabic. “Mysterious Yemen treads fine line on terror,” by Omar Karmi for The Age, with thanks to DFS:
ON THE narrow roads of Akhdan City, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, people have little patience with suggestions that the country is an unstable haven for terrorists.
“What terrorists?” asked Sharifa Ahmed, 60. With six of her grandchildren crowding around her, Mrs Ahmed is struggling to keep food on the table and debt collectors from the door. Terrorism? “Yemen is not a terrorist country,” she asserts impatiently.
A neighbour, Ahmed Ali, 31, agrees. Unemployed, Mr Ali spends his days scouring the neighbourhoods for work. He reckons he makes 10,000 Yemeni riyals ($A66) on average a month doing odd jobs. With that, he has to feed his young family and pay the bills. “Terrorism?” He looks puzzled.
But the arrests here in October of eight foreigners, among them three Australians, on suspicion of links with al-Qaeda and weapons smuggling, has again shone a spotlight on suspected terrorist activity in this otherwise often forgotten corner of the Arabian peninsula.
Western governments have long considered Yemen fertile ground for extremism, and, ever since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden port, which killed 19 US servicemen and was claimed by al-Qaeda, the Yemeni Government has been under considerable external pressure to clamp down on extremist elements in the country.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh became a fully paid-up member of the “war against terror” after September 11, 2001, and Yemen’s security forces have cracked down on suspected militants on a number of occasions since.
But Mr Saleh walks a fine line between confronting the more hard-core religious sector of Yemen and alienating a traditional Islamist power base. His 1994 civil war victory was aided in no small part by the “Afghan veterans”, who had returned from fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s in Afghanistan. And in a fractured and unruly tribal society, where arms are abundant and poverty rife, the regime needs to keep as many friends as much of the time as possible.
“If you know someone can hurt you, you have to play them,” says Faris al-Sanabani, publisher of the Yemen Observer, an English-language daily newspaper. “You have to either bring them in or take them out. But taking them out can be risky. Just look at the US in Iraq.”
Yemen has instead adopted a multi-phase strategy, clamping down hard on anyone suspected of plotting attacks inside the country, but taking a softer approach to sympathisers or those whose energies are focused outside, particularly in Iraq, much to the displeasure of the US. At least two suicide bombings in Iraq were committed by Yemenis, and numerous reports indicate that many of the non-Iraqis fighting the US-led occupation received their training in Yemen.