Is Yemen the New Hot Spot for Terrorism Training?

January 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Q&A, Aaron Glantz

Editor’s Note: Reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect accused of trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, was trained in Yemen have raised the specter of further U.S. military involvement in that country. To get a better sense of what’s going on in Yemen, NAM editor Aaron Glantz spoke with Jillian Schwedler, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.”

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A security personnel stands behind a machinegun installed on a vehicle in Sanaa January 6, 2010. Yemeni forces surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday and captured three militants wounded in a raid, security sources said. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.                                

REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

What was your first reaction when you heard that Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen?

Yemen has fairly porous borders and a lot of people are in and out of there. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. It’s not like going to a camp in Afghanistan. It doesn’t have the same meaning. I mean, you go to a camp in Afghanistan, you’re pretty much going for one reason. It’s not the same as Yemen.

It seems like in the popular discussion, Yemen is becoming associated with fundamentalist clerics and terrorism.

There are definitely a lot of extremists there, but I think the bigger framework to think about Yemen is not as a hotbed of radicalism and terror but as a state where the government does not control all of the land. They’ve been fighting a significant insurgency in the North for six years now and there’s a separatist group in the South that’s in an armed conflict. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are 60 million weapons outside of government hands in Yemen. And that’s in a country of 20 million people. So it’s a highly-armed, fragmented society and the government hasn’t really had control over the entire country for some time, if ever. So certainly there’s extremism there, but there’s a lot of stuff going on that the government isn’t really in control of.

So who is in the leadership of the government of Yemen?

The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is essentially a central government, but there are many parts of the country that are not under the central government. There are armed areas that the government doesn’t police and doesn’t have anything to do with, except to offer very limited services. And we’re talking about big chunks of the country in the North and the East particularly. It’s not one little enclave.

And a huge part of the border with Saudi Arabia is not even defined because it’s a desert. There are not a lot of people there but there are chunks of the country that are frontier-land kind of areas where people move between those two states.

Yemen was two countries during the Cold War.

Even calling it two countries becomes sort of a fiction. For years, it was just sort of a bunch of enclaves including the British colony that was there for nearly 100 years in the South, various tribal governments, there was a Northern government. But from the ‘60s, you had two states, a Northern state which was the Yemen Arab Republic, and the Southern state which was the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was a Marxist, Soviet outpost. And so when the Soviet Union fell in 1989, they lost all their funding and then North Yemen was never particularly strong, and so the two decided that they would unite, which they did and initially had democratic elections in which nobody won a majority.

Northern loyalists were assassinating socialists in the South and the unification never really went forward. They unified the country formally, but former governments maintained their owned armies. That culminated in a civil war in 1994 that lasted two months. And the North defeated the South and has been in control ever since under the leadership of the same president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

So it’s really become an Egypt-style government where there’s a president who pretends to be elected and everyone else pretends to have candidates.

So during all this time, what has the U.S. government’s role been?

Well, right after Yemen unified in May 1990, Yemen had the unfortunate opportunity to have a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. So they had the seat during the first Gulf War in 1991 and they abstained from that Security Council vote. They did not vote for the coalition in 1990 and they did not vote against it; they abstained. So the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all punished Yemen by unilaterally cutting all aid to the country. So it was a newly-unified country that had a tremendous amount of aid cut. Millions of Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were all deported and that had a devastating affect on the economy in Yemen.

But then relations gradually improved, with the U.S. not really having an interest in Yemen. Then, with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and subsequent events, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh has been working very closely with the U.S. government because in some ways these Islamists are threatening to him as well. That said, there’s an Islamist party that’s closely aligned with the regime. So while the government is working with the U.S. to battle extremists, at the same time he’s playing this delicate balancing act that includes allying himself with extremists.

So basically, he’s allying himself with the United States in the war on terror, and with the people who are opposing that at the same time.

Exactly. And I don’t think he’s that brilliant as a politician. It’s just luck that it’s all held together at this point. It’s surprising to me that he’s pulling it off. A lot of people think it could get really bad there really quick.

Already, the Fullbright program has been suspended. People aren’t going there to study or do research. It’s really not safe.

So when you’re watching the news right now, what are you looking for? What are you looking for in these reports that will help you decide what’s going on?

In so much of what’s coming through, I hear mistakes in reports that frustrate me. What I want to know is: Are things realigning? Are new people coming on top? I haven’t seen this in the media, but for example: Saudi Arabia would have a clear interest in Yemen not becoming a failed state. So is Saudi Arabia sending more government and trying to bolster them and is that creating more Wahabi influence? Or this: Are you seeing a lot of the tribal sheiks realigning themselves? Because with that many weapons out of government control a few significant shifts in alignment could be game changers. Those are the kinds of things I’m interested in, but you don’t tend to see them in media a lot.

Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, “Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.”

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In Iran Election, Tradition Competes With Web

June 11, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Thomas Erdbrink, Washington Post Foreign Service

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A supporter of Iran’s presidential election candidate Mirhossein Mousavi, with her hair braided with green ribbons, attends a campaign rally in Tehran June 9, 2009. Green is the campaign colour of Mousavi.

REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

TEHRAN, June 8 — Supporters of both leading candidates in this week’s Iranian presidential election flocked to mass rallies here Monday, and the gatherings underscored the differences between the tactics of the two camps.

More than 100,000 backers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gathered in traditional fashion at a central mosque, arriving in buses organized by members of the baseej, Iran’s voluntary paramilitary force. The crowds were so dense that Ahmadinejad’s vehicle was unable to reach the stage.

Wearing a headband in the colors of the Iranian flag, the symbol of Ahmadinejad’s campaign, Leili Aghahi, 17, waved at the president. Ahmadinejad stood for a while on the roof of his sport-utility vehicle, immobilized by the adoring crowd, then left without giving a speech.

2009-06-09T154316Z_01_AJS04_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-ELECTION “Our supporters like to be close to the president,” said Javad Shamaqdari, a presidential adviser on the arts who is also the director of Ahmadinejad’s campaign movies. “The Grand Mosque is a good, central meeting place for us,” he added.

Supporters of Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, had to be more inventive to find a place for their rally. Over the weekend, a government organization refused permission for his campaign to use Tehran’s 120,000-seat Azadi Stadium for a rally originally planned for Sunday. But in less than 24 hours, using text messages and Facebook postings, thousands of Mousavi backers gathered along Vali-e Asr Avenue, Tehran’s 12-mile-long arterial road.

Many brought green ropes or strings, which they tied together to form a giant chain in Mousavi’s signature color. Groups wearing green head scarves or green T-shirts arrived from schools and universities. “This way, down here,” student organizer Mohsen Ghadiri, 19, called to about 40 students from the prestigious Elm-o-Sanat University, as they looked for empty spaces in the long line of people.

“Thanks to Internet and text messages, we can rally big crowds in a very short time,” noted Ghadiri, who wore a green shirt emblazoned with Mousavi’s portrait.
Shamaqdari, Ahmadinejad’s adviser, called Mousavi’s campaign tactics a form of “psychological warfare” copied from the “color revolutions” that swept away governments in Georgia and Ukraine.

“They place groups of 100 people wearing colors at several locations in Tehran. This disrupts traffic, making people think that something big is happening,” he said. “These are all the methods of a velvet revolution, but this one is only meant to get them votes.”

Reza Badamchi, manager of a pro-Mousavi Web site, disagreed. “If there are any similarities between our campaign and a velvet revolution, this is purely accidental. We don’t want a revolution. We want Mousavi to win,” he said.

Badamchi’s site, called Sepidedam.com, broadcasts speeches by Mousavi, who has repeatedly complained that state television favors Ahmadinejad. “So we still get our message out through the Web. And the best part is, it’s for free,” Badamchi said, adding that “these are the most digital and virtual elections ever” in Iran.

Shamaqdari portrayed Mousavi’s supporters as geeks who spend too much time at their computers.

“Even though it is bad for their mental health, Mousavi’s supporters spend hours on the Internet,” he said. “Our youths are more social. They like to hang out at baseej centers, on the streets or play sports. They like to meet in groups. Mousavi’s supporters are more solitary.”

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