Why Al Qaeda finds sympathy in Yemen
Student and taxi driver Abdul Jabbar al-Suhaili, who drags a soiled Israeli flag behind his car, says he wishes Osama bin Laden were president.
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“I wish this Israel-Palestine problem would be solved – if there were a just solution, then we could cut a big artery for Al Qaeda in Yemen and all the world,” says Mr. Jemhi, author of a book on Al Qaeda in Yemen, his home country.Skip to next paragraph
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“Al Qaeda in Yemen depends on the same factors that Al Qaeda in Afghanistan does – all the problems in Yemen, the injustice and corruption,” says Jemhi.
“But in ideology, it also depends on instigating hatred against the West, and the idea that there should be continuous hostility to the West,” adds Jemhi. “Permanent conditions like Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the situation in Iraq [bolsters] Al Qaeda’s philosophy that says, ‘life is based on fighting.’”
Locally, US-backed air strikes in December – which took out some Al Qaeda operatives, but also killed dozens of civilians – feed into that Al Qaeda argument. Ali Ashal, a member of Yemen’s parliament from the troubled southern Abyan province, was on the investigating committee.
“When the committee visited the area, it saw that the strike affected innocents, and created a reaction among people,” says Mr. Ashal, who says more than 42 civilians were killed. “This reaction was against the Yemeni government. But this rage and anger was also directed at the US. I believe Al Qaeda seizes such killing of innocents to gain sympathy from citizens.”
Some 15 Al Qaeda militants appeared with a megaphone among thousands of tribesmen mourning the deaths, says Ashal, but people were “surprised” by their appearance
'Osama bin Laden should be president'
The US has urged Yemen to crack down on Al Qaeda, and promised to double the modest aid it currently provides. But President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government also have other conflicts to cope with: a secessionist movement in the south; and a rebellion in the north that has already cost thousands of lives.
By contrast, at least in terms of casualties, Al Qaeda is a much smaller problem.
“If you take all the people who have died in Al Qaeda attacks since 2000, you reach like 50,” says a European analyst with long experience in Yemen who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his work. “The degree of Islamist violence inside Yemen is nowhere close to the Islamist violence in Pakistan, for instance, where [recently] in a volleyball stadium you get 70 people killed. In Yemen this has never happened.”
Yet analysts say that Al Qaeda’s influence has been growing, and in Yemen can only be managed with a combination of military force, development, and ideological persuasion.
“This is where we can play a constructive role, by letting people know that terrorism is not the main issue in Yemen currently, and that if we focus too much on it [at the expense of development], we will probably destabilize Yemen further,” says the European analyst.
“The government operations against Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda operations against the government can’t be judged in terms of casualties, but how these operations destroy the spirit of either side,” says Jemhi.
Student and taxi driver Suhaili knows where he stands, as the soiled Israeli flag drags behind his car.
“One day we [Muslims] will control them. Maybe I will not live long enough to see that day, but it will happen,” says Suhaili. “In the current situation, Osama bin Laden should be president. He’s strong.”