Welcome, Americans, to Mysterious Yemen
Yemen, the likely source of the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing at Detroit, has just rudely intruded into the West’s awareness. Militant sources there claim the attack by a young Nigerian was retaliation for extensive covert US military operations in Yemen.
Welcome to the Afghanistan of Arabia
Thanks to the ineffective pyrotechnic device in his underpants, the wannabe Nigerian jihadist has and will inflict billions of dollars in security costs on the United States, and disrupt its vital air travel — all for a $2,000 economy airplane ticket. American-hating jihadists everywhere are clapping their hands in glee. Osama bin Laden must be smiling as the US stumbles into yet another anti-American tar pit.
President Barack Obama has just declared Yemen a new hotbed of anti-American extremists.
Yemen is a magical, beautiful country, but it is not a place for the timid traveler or faint of heart. I first explored Yemen in the mid-1970’s when it was just creeping into the 11th century AD.
Located at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, mountainous, verdant Yemen was the Biblical land of the Queen of Sheba, and the originator of perfume. It was an important bridge between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Sana’a, the walled capitol, was straight out of the Arabian Nights. At dusk, a ram’s horn would sound and its gates would close for the night. Beyond lay warlike tribesmen who would slit your throat for your watch.
Almost every man wore a curved tribal dagger in his belt. Mud-walled skyscrapers filled the city, along with open sewers and teeming markets with eldritch names like the "souk of daggers" and the "souk of salt."
There were no hotels to speak of, so I slept in the dining room of one of the palaces of the former ruler, Ahmed the Devil, who much enjoyed nailing annoying people to his palace gate. Old Ahmed spent the rest of his time smoking hashish and cavorting with his well-stocked harem.
The state of North Yemen came into being at the end of World War I as the dying Ottoman Empire gave up its Arabian possessions. During the 19th century, the British Empire had gobbled up the entire southern coast of Arabia, creating South Yemen, with its strategic seaport of Aden, and turning the kingdom of Oman into a protectorate. South Yemen became a hotbed of Arab leftists and anti-British militants. In the 1960’s, Saudi Arabia and Egypt battled for domination of Yemen. Both lost.
North Yemen has been ruled since 1978 by a military dictator, Ali Saleh. In the 1990’s, the former British colony of Aden joined North Yemen, creating today’s united Yemen. After some bloodshed, Saleh became ruler of united Yemen.
Oil was happily discovered, but has pretty much run out, leaving Yemen dirt poor and in dire financial straits. Saleh’s regime, like other US-backed Arab governments, is accused of extensive human rights violations and deep corruption.
The two Yemen’s 23 million people have feuded for decades.
Yemeni Shia and Sunnis are at scimitar’s drawn. The nation has deep tribal and clan divisions and rivalries. The south and north are at odds, with talk of secession by Aden. An assortment of anti-western militant groups has found a home in lawless Yemen. On top of all this, Shia Houthi tribesmen on Yemen’s undemarcated northern border are battling Saudi forces, backed by US air power. Yemen’s warlike tribes hate any outside authority, starting with their own government.
Yemen has also battled with neighbor Oman, which remains a virtual colony of MI6, British intelligence.
In a wonderful colonial punch-up during the 60’s and 70’s, Britain’s fabled SAS commandos driving pink-painted jeeps (they blended perfectly with sand) battled Yemeni-backed nationalists in Dhofar known as the "Red Wolves of Radfan."
I naturally fell in love with medieval Yemen, in spite of getting caught in tribal gun fights in the north, nearly kidnapped, and falling dreadfully ill with parasites from the local cuisine.
At four pm daily, nearly everyone Yemeni would go off duty, sit in groups, and chew the mild narcotic shrub qat for two hours while getting silly and swapping tall tales and jokes. Qat curbs the appetite, so most lucky Yemenis are skinny. The shrub has become Yemen’s primary crop. Farmers grow qat rather than food, creating chronic malnutrition in Yemen.
I still recall being amazed to see tall, majestic Yemeni Jews proudly striding down the street dressed in flowing robes, turbans, and sporting daggers, long beards and large silver stars of David around their necks — a vision straight from the Old Testament.
Today, turbulent Yemen has become a haven for anti-American militants. Osama bin Laden’s father came from Yemen. The destroyer USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbor in 2000, and the US Embassy in Sana’a was attacked by gunmen in 2008. Fearing another attack, Washington and London just announced the temporary closure of their Sana’a embassies. Islamic militants deride these large, fortified embassies, as modern "crusader castles."
The most prominent Yemeni militant group is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a fusion of local Yemeni and Saudi jihadists dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi monarchy and Yemeni military regime and replacing them with an Islamic government.
AQAP numbers around 100—200 core members, with thousands of supporters. It is not an organic part of Osama bin Laden’s group but, like similar al-Qaida franchises in Iraq, North Africa, Somalia, and West Africa, a like-minded local revolutionary group.
In December, the Saudis, backed by US air power, CIA and special forces, intervened against Shia Houthi tribesmen along Yemen’s northern desert border. A semisecret US base in Djibouti is being used for attacks on Yemen, Somalia and Kenya.
Just before the Detroit air incident, US warplanes killed 50—100 Houthi tribesmen fighting the American-backed regime. US Special Forces, warplanes and killer drones have been active since 2001, assassinating Yemeni militants and antigovernment tribal leaders. It was only a matter of time before Yemeni jihadists struck back at the US.
Now that Washington admits Yemen is a new hotbed of anti-western jihadist activity, the current US argument that US and NATO forces must remain in Afghanistan to deny jihadists a safe haven appears absurd.
The US is being drawn into turbulent Yemen just as it is also expanding military operations across the Red Sea in Somalia and northern Kenya, and engineering the breakup of Sudan into two states. Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also getting involved in Yemen.
Another hornet’s nest kicked. Expect more nasty stings.
Americans, who still struggle to understand the difference between Croats, Bosnians and Slovenes, or between Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, now face a crash course in the mysteries and wonders of Yemen.
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada. He is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.