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Why Yemen could become Al Qaeda haven

Four clashes in the past eight days underscore the state's vulnerability. Southern secessionists and northern rebels have weakened the central government.

By Laura KasinofContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2009

Sanaa, Yemen

Yemen's vulnerability as a potential militant haven has been underscored by four attacks on security forces in eight days, as the country battles a Shiite rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.

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On Friday, Yemeni troops retaliated against suspected Al Qaeda militants after their truck was ambushed en route to the northeastern city of Maarib, reported Agence France-Presse. A tribal source told the news agency that antiterror troops attacked the militants' hideout, killing a wanted Al Qaeda leader, A'ed Saleh al-Shabwani.

Last week, clashes turned deadly at two opposition gatherings in south Yemen and Shiite rebels ambushed soldiers in north Yemen, killing three, according to Reuters.

The conflict in the north drew international attention last month, when the central government blamed the Shiite rebels – known as Houthis – for the June 12 kidnapping of nine foreigners, including two German women and a South Korean woman who turned up dead two days later.

Houthi leadership strenuously denied involvement, and the group has no history of killing foreign nationals.

Tensions in the wake of the murders could lead to a fresh round of fighting in the conflict – an ongoing battle in the northern Saada governate between the government and Houthi rebels that has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than 100,000.

"One week ago, the authorities sent soldiers to Saada and attacked the governorate's citizens," said a senior Houthi rebel in a phone interview shortly after the kidnappings. "There were clashes between the Houthis and soldiers in the region."

An intensifying of the Saada conflict – one of numerous problems plaguing Yemen's fragile unity – could severely undermine the country, one of the poorest in the Arab world, says Joost R. Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"With secessionist sentiments on the rise in the south and an escalating threat from Al Qaeda, another round in the north could prove devastating to a country with a weak-to-failing state system," says Mr. Hiltermann, the ICG's deputy program director of the Middle East and North Africa division.

The Yemeni and Saudi branches of Al Qaeda merged in January this year, prompting the US Director of National Intelligence to say that Yemen was "reemerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for Al Qaeda."

Yemen paints rebels as Islamic extremists