Yemen quakes in Cole's shadow

As US troops head to the Persian Gulf, Yemenis dread the possibility of an unfair offensive.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Although Yemen has added its name to the list of nations ready to support America's declared war against terrorism, this Arab desert country increasingly fears that it will become a target.

"People are scared of an attack by a government that is very powerful and very angry, that will look like an execution without a trial," says Jamal Adimi, a lawyer and head of Yemen's Forum for Civil Society.

Similar fears are echoing louder in capitals across the Middle East, as senior US officials from President George W. Bush on down make clear that they intend to go after regimes that harbor terrorists.

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Yemen, at the foot of the Arabian peninsula, was the site of the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole last October. Until last year the country was described by the US State Department as providing "safe haven for terrorists."

One of the alleged hijackers on the plane that smashed into the Pentagon September 11, Khalid al-Mihdar, is a Yemeni who was already on America's terrorist watch list.

While Yemenis take pains to voice sympathy for those killed in the US attacks, an informal survey by the English-language Yemen Times found that a majority oppose any US retaliation.

Echoing across the region are concerns that any US military response seen as misguided or too broad - such as going after targets in Iraq, Lebanon or Yemen - could create a new set of dangerous and far-reaching problems.

Training camps in Afghanistan purportedly run by the Al-Qaeda network of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden - the chief suspect in the US attacks, whom Mr. Bush says he wants "dead or alive" - are seen as primary targets. But religious and militant camps in Yemen may also be in the cross hairs, according to unsourced local news reports.

"If you hit camps, it will only achieve the destruction of empty huts, and stir more violence and terrorism," Mr. Adimi says. "Those people will never be waiting for you. Strikes will only make people more angry, and give more support [to militants]."

Until the bombing of the Cole, US officials spoke openly about redrawing the strategic map of the Gulf, to include the increasingly cooperative government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A low-profile deal was reached for refueling US warships at the Red Sea port of Aden; the US organized a popular de-mining program; and US special forces units held limited joint training exercises.

The Cole blast, in which 17 US sailors died, froze those ties.

The US State Department's "Patterns of Global Terrorism" report for 2000 says that Yemen was "as much a victim of the attack" as the US.

But friction has grown between between the FBI and Yemen authorities over restrictions imposed by the Yemenis during the investigation. Among other issues, top military and religious leaders wanted for questioning were kept off limits. Local press have named them, despite official government denials, as Sheik Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani, head of the radical wing of the Islamic "Islah" opposition party, and now head of the Al-Iman (Faith) University in Sanaa; and Ali Mohsen, commander of the northern region, who is related by marriage to President Saleh.

European diplomats say they would be surprised if the US is considering targets in Yemen.

Are we on the list?

In a country where the government's writ barely exists in remote clan areas, and there are three guns for every citizen, popular fears of a US strike are being fanned by several recent articles in two local newspapers.

The US attacks were "a disgusting act of hatred. Nobody likes it," says a Yemeni professional who asked not to be named. "But everything you do has consequences. We don't want chaos, and people here are very emotional. They don't know much about many facts. They are easily deceived."

The newspapers list at least three "potential" US targets here with "relations to bin Laden" and "terrorist connections." Two are remote camps - one, an Islamic religious training facility at Dammaj, where some Americans have allegedly been among the students - as well as targets in mountains in the lawless southern province of Abyan.

The Sout al-Ashura newspaper reported that a list of American demands, presented to the government since the Sept. 11 attacks, included granting US investigators access to senior religious and military figures that had been previously refused.

Yemen has long been a conduit for arms sales, and during the 1960s and 1970s, Marxist south Yemen was home to every stripe of militant. Carlos the Jackal received sanctuary here; an array of Palestinian groups trained here.

And it was Yemen that provided as many as 3,000 volunteers to fight with the mujahideen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to an estimate by the London-based Jane's Intelligence Review. Yemen was a clearing house, and Mr. bin Laden, whose father comes from the south of the country, was a star recruiter and financier of that CIA-backed operation.

Some of those Arab "Afghans" from throughout the Mideast have joined bin Laden, in turning the object of their struggle from the Soviets to what they call the American "occupation" of the Muslim Holy Lands of Saudi Arabia.

Several Yemenis were arrested last Sunday, when they tried to enter Yemen, under suspicion that they may have been coming from bin Laden camps in Afghanistan.

The alleged hijacker, Mr. al-Mihdar, is reported to have been a known associate of a suspect in the Cole case. Although his name may be an alias, investigators are examining al-Mihdar's possible links with a man who shares the same family name - the leader of the Islamist Aden-Abyan Army, who was tried and executed one-and-a-half years ago after a kidnapping resulted in four deaths.

"If US investigators have their thinking caps on, they will go through the Cole material, and pressure Yemen to cooperate fully," says Eric Watkins, a Mideast analyst who spent six years in Yemen.

Evidence is likely to reveal gradations of involvement in the US attacks - from individuals to some government assistance for the terrorists, and US-ally Saudi Arabia can't be excluded, he says.

But Washington will probably "keep retaliation as far away from the Arabian Peninsula as it can," Mr. Watkins says. In the Arab world, striking Yemen carries additional risks, he adds, because "Yemen is considered the source of all Arabs."

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