Are Iran and Al Qaeda vying for influence in Yemen?
At least 200 dead in Yemeni battle against radicals.
BEIRUT, LEBANON — Could Yemen follow on the heels of Afghanistan and Iraq as the third major venue in the war on terrorism?
A bloody Islamist insurrection in the mountainous north which has cost more than 200 lives and a statement from an Al Qaeda group vowing to turn Yemen into a "quagmire" for the US would suggest that the remote country at the tip of the Arabian peninsula is gearing up for conflict.
But instead of an Al Qaeda campaign against the US and the Yemeni government, a conflict in Yemen may involve a power struggle between militant Sunnis and Iranian-backed Shiites, analysts say.
Al Qaeda despises the Shiite branch of Islam as much as it hates the US. Therefore, analysts say, Iran may back Shiite groups to counter the spread of Al Qaeda's influence in Yemen, which would threaten the country's traditionally moderate Zaidi Shiite population.
"I don't think Iran will allow Al Qaeda to set up a base in Yemen which could threaten the Zaidi Shiites," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut.
On July 1, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade, an Al Qaeda affiliate, released a statement vowing "to drag the United States into a third quagmire, that is after Iraq and Afghanistan, and let it be Yemen, God willing." The brigade has previously claimed responsibility for the March 11 rail bombings in Madrid as well as numerous attacks in Turkey and Iraq.
With the US military presence in Yemen minimal it seems unlikely that Yemen would become a venue for the war on terror. However, Yemen is the most populated and poorest country in the Arabian peninsula, with unemployment as high as 40 percent, making it fertile recruiting ground for Al Qaeda.
In October 2000, a suicide bomb attack killed 17 US sailors and damaged the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. The same year, the oil supertanker Limburg was damaged in an attack thought to have been carried out by Al Qaeda just off the Yemeni coast.
"Thousands of jobless and hopeless Yemeni youths are an easy target for transnational and domestic extremist groups," says Abdullah al-Faqih, professor of politics at the University of Sana in Yemen. "Furthermore, Al Qaeda may also benefit from the Yemeni government's inability to effectively control some remote areas in the far north and in the long coastal area."
Yemen is a potentially convenient refuge for Al Qaeda militants fleeing a crackdown in Saudi Arabia. Large stretches of the Yemen-Saudi border remain undefined and run through desert and mountainous terrain. Still, the Saudi and Yemeni authorities have increased security cooperation, with the former laying a concrete-filled pipe along the frontier to impede illegal infiltration.
"More important, tribes along the borders have come to realize the heavy cost they may incur in case they harbor such elements" says Professor Faqih.
The Yemen government is sharing intelligence with the US, has expelled foreign Islamists, tightened up visa restrictions, and arrested militants.
At the end of June, authorities shut down all unregistered religious schools, seen as breeding grounds for Islamic militants. That decision appears to be connected connected to a violent insurrection waged for the past month in Saada, a mountainous northwest province. The revolt is led by Hussein al-Houthi, an anti-US Shiite cleric who runs a religious school and heads a group called Al Shabab al-Moumin, the Youthful Believers.
"It is imperative to make a distinction between the ongoing clashes in northern Yemen and Al Qaeda's various groups and leaders," says Faqih. "Al Houthi's group and Al Qaeda may share a common anti-American tone, but "Houthi hates Al Qaeda more than he hates the state."
Houthi's rebels have been flying the flag of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah organization and the militant cleric has been paying his followers $100.
"This is a huge sum. Where does he get all this money? Who is the party financing him and to what end?" asked Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in an interview last week with Lebanon's Al Mustaqbal newspaper.
Hizbullah has denied any involvement with Houthi, saying the party's policy "is not to intervene in other country's affairs."
The Zaidi Shiites are thought to comprise about one third of Yemen's population of 20 million with the moderate Shafi Sunnis making up the rest. Although the Shafi Sunnis historically have been tolerant of the Shiites, that could change if Al Qaeda grows, says Professor Hamzeh.
"It seems that Al Qaeda has been successful in radicalizing the Shafi Sunnis," he says. "I can definitely see a future clash between the Zaidi Shiites and the newly mobilized Shafi Sunnis."