CAIRO — An attack in Yemen that killed three American aid workers is being seen as the start of a backlash against Yemeni cooperation with the US "war on terror."
In recent months, the US has extended its military reach deep within this mountainous desert country, searching for Islamic militants sheltered by its harsh terrain and limited central government. Although Al Qaeda sympathizers have promised to retaliate, Sunday's attack is the most dramatic targeting of American civilians in the region since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
"This kind of action will be part of the fallout from our much closer relations with the Yemeni government," says Charles Dunbar, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Simmons College in Boston and a former US ambassador to Yemen. Noting that the suspected gunman told police he had been coordinating his act with a gunman who killed a prominent Yemeni leftist politician over the weekend, Professor Dunbar says, "If that's true, this can be seen not just as a lashing out against America and Americans, but against foreign ideologies, religious or secular."
The object of this attack was both a Christian hospital and the closer US-Yemeni relations, says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and a Yemen specialist at New York University.
"Every one of these attacks, whether it hits people or a [French] supertanker off the coast [bombed in October], is targeting our alliance with the Yemeni government as much as Americans." He says that ever since the Yemeni government broke an unspoken accord with Al Qaeda to leave the organization alone in the country as long as it didn't carry out domestic attacks, Al Qaeda has placed the government in its sights.
An Islamic militant, cradling a semiautomatic gun under his jacket to resemble a small child in need of medical attention, reportedly burst into the Southern Baptist missionary hospital in Jibla Monday and gunned down three US aid workers who had devoted themselves to helping one of the Arab world's most lawless, poverty-stricken nations. The gunman wounded a fourth American worker.
The 30-year-old suspected assassin, identified as Abed Abdel Razzak Kamel by the Yemeni Interior Ministry, was soon arrested. Authorities said he confessed to being a member of the country's fundamentalist Islamic Reform Party, but sources in the capital said they doubted that he had still been a member.
A radical wing of the Reform Party, or Islah, has had strong ties to the thousands of Afghan Arabs who flooded Yemen in the '90s and who have known links to Osama bin Laden, whose own family hails from Hadramaut region of the country.
Yemeni militants have come under fire from the US in the months following Sept. 11, 2001. Yemeni officials have said that in November US officials based in Yemen oversaw the intelligence-gathering process to set up the assassination of six Al Qaeda members by an unmanned US Predator drone. It was the first airstrike against Al Qaeda outside Afghanistan.
US Embassy officials told the Monitor after that the killing of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, dubbed "the godfather of terror in Yemen," that Americans in Yemen had been asked to lower their profile and avoid traveling in lawless areas. On Nov. 14, a US Embassy message to Americans stated that the American government continued "to receive credible warnings that additional terrorist activities against Western and American interests in Yemen are being planned."
Senior US officials also downplayed the likelihood of a major backlash against Americans in Yemen.
But Monday's attack puts the few remaining US citizens in Yemen on high alert that they are in the cross hairs of bin Laden's affiliates.
For Western aid workers, an already difficult situation has become increasingly perilous.
Still, despite fears of further terrorist attacks, the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board has said that it remains committed to working in Yemen. Board President Jerry Rankin said his group would continue to operate in the country as long as the Yemeni government allows.
On its website, the board described its 35-year-old hospital in Jibla as an 80-bed facility that "provides medical care for a wide area of the country." It said in addition to their work at the hospital, missionaries taught English and clinical skills at a nearby Yemeni nursing school.
Before the early November strike on Harethi, believed to have helped plan the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole off the southern port of Aden, Yemen's President Ali Saleh had been under mounting pressure from Washington to push ahead faster with his own fight against terror. Yemen is home to more Arab Afghan veterans than any other country.
Prominent officials in the country's opposition leftist parties complained to the Monitor in November, however, that the president has remained reluctant to crack down on elements of the Islah Party with ties to bin Laden.
Thousands of Afghan Arabs, many with ties to bin Laden, assisted the president and his forces in 1994 in retaking the port of Aden from a faction of southern secessionists.
In the capital, Sana, the massive, iron-gated US Embassy has become the nexus of an American effort to help train the Yemeni government to fight its own war on terror. US Marines have been brought in to protect a counter-terrorism camp that consists of both CIA and Green Berets.
The US military also operates a military base with several hundred Special Forces in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. Unmanned Predator drones based there are capable of transmitting real-time video images from the Yemeni hinterlands.
Ambassador Edmund Hull, the State Department's chief of counterterrorism, has played a crucial role in trying to get Yemen to cooperate with the US.
Senior Yemeni officials and tribal sources told the Monitor that the ambassador made several trips to the Marib region of Yemen in advance of the Predator strike. They said he also paid for information from tribesmen that helped locate the Al Qaeda cell.
British officials said that the Americans had carefully explained to the Yemeni government that it had the option, itself, of going after senior Al Qaeda figures. If it chose not to, the US government indicated that it was prepared to take matters into its own hands.
Some Yemeni officials said, however, that they were infuriated by the way the US ambassador strong-armed the efforts and were critical of the assistant secretary of State, Paul Wolfowitz, for making public what they said had been a secret agreement not to publicize the US counter- terrorism role in their country.