Yemen hostage killings: the work of Al Qaeda?

Yemeni officials pointed to Shiite rebels that have clashed with the government, but the operation is a marked departure from their style of hostage-taking.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    A Yemeni security armored vehicle patrol in the capital San'a, Yemen, Monday, June 15.
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As many as nine foreign hostages, including Germans, a Briton, and a South Korean, have been found dead in the volatile region of Saada in northern Yemen today, according to news agency reports.

Yemeni authorities have accused a Shiite rebel group active in Saada, frequently referred to as the Houthis, of the kidnapping and murders. However, analysts say the incident isn't in line with typical Houthi hostage-taking, when foreigners are normally released unharmed. They instead point to Al Qaeda.

"Several members of the Yemeni government have accused rogue cells of the Houthis of carrying this out, but that scenario doesn't seem that likely," says Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, editor of the forthcoming book "Islam and Insurgency in Yemen." "I think that it's difficult to know at this early point.... If the Houthis did indeed carry this out, it would be a significant departure from their style of hostage-taking. I think that a lot of people are looking at this as it may have been something Al Qaeda has carried out."

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Three of the hostages, two German women and one South Korean woman, were confirmed dead in a press release by the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. The fate of the remaining six was not immediately known.

The German Embassy in Sanaa has refused to comment on the issue.

The victims worked for a Dutch international relief organization in war-torn Saada, according to a Yemeni official.

Al Qaeda strengthening in Yemen

Al Qaeda has increased its presence in Yemen over the past few years, carrying out a number of fatal attacks against foreigners and foreign institutions, including an attack on the US Embassy in Sanaa in September 2008.

"About two weeks ago, Al Qaeda threatened foreigners in Yemen ... [telling them] that they aren't protected by the Yemeni government," Mr. Johnsen explains.

No other group has claimed responsibility for the abductions and murders, and on their official website the Houthis have strongly denied carrying out the attacks.

Houthis clashing with government

The Houthis, who follow the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, have clashed violently with Yemen's central government in Saada and surrounding areas since 2004, when rebel leader Husein Al-Houthi was killed by government forces.

According to Christoph Wilcke, Middle East and North Africa senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, the battle between Houthis and the Yemeni government has become more than a political battle as tribal allegiances, a strong force in Yemen, have entered into the conflict as well.

"The government-Houthi conflict has a growing tribal dimension and cannot be simply pitted as rebels against government any more," wrote Mr. Wilcke in an e-mail. "Those killed in government-Houthi fighting now have also tribal scores to settle, starting a cycle of revenge killings that have no political demands attached to it."

Foreigner kidnappings are frequent in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, and hostages are often used as bargaining tools between tribesmen and the Yemeni government. Typically, hostages are released unharmed. An exception was a 1998 incident when three Britons and an Australian were killed in clashes between armed tribesmen and the Yemeni security forces who were trying to secure the hostages' release.

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