Is Yemen a conduit for global terrorism?

When Yemen's president meets Clinton Monday, terrorism will be part of the talks.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has vowed to eradicate terrorism from Yemen, but that message may not have been heard by gun-runners and purveyors of terrorism, who are long used to Yemen's reputation as a safe haven and transit point for Islamic militants.

On terrorism charge sheets across the world, "Yemen" keeps popping up - a topic that will almost certainly be on the agenda when Mr. Saleh meets with President Clinton in Washington on Monday.

Yemen's long link to Islamist terrorism has been of concern not just in the United States, but more recently in Russia, East Africa, and the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Jordan indicted 28 suspected terrorists - a cell whose leader first met like-minded militants in Yemen. According to the indictment, they were plotting New Year attacks on American and Israeli tourist targets, and are followers of alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Even the suspects arrested for the 1998 twin bombings of US Embassies in East Africa carried false Yemen passports, and one of them was Yemeni. US officials blame Mr. Bin Laden for those attacks: His father is Yemeni, and he once considered moving his hideout from Afghanistan to Yemen.

A Russian presidential envoy last week said that Arab mercenaries fighting alongside Chechen rebels "came to Chechnya from Yemen."

These recent reports are likely to put terrorism high on the agenda in talks Mr. Clinton will hold with Saleh, which also include American investment and growing US strategic interest in Yemen - including a popular Pentagon-run de-mining program, and a bunkering agreement for US Navy sailors.

Diplomats say that Yemen's leader, who has ruled for 21 years and is introducing democratic reforms, is personally bent on controlling militants. Bin Laden loyalists here, they add, are "not operationally active," anymore. But signals have been mixed.

"For a long time, Yemen encouraged Islamists, but now they are trying to put the Islamists behind them," says Eric Watkins, a London-based analyst who lived in Yemen for six years. The result is "a contradictory image," he says. "The question is: How committed is Yemen to fighting terrorism?"

Yemen has been a source and transit point for militants and cash for Bin Laden's Al-Qaida network since the 1980s, when Islamic mujahideen fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

"Yemen may be able to play a useful strategic role for the US on terrorism and the Bin Laden issue," says a Washington-based analyst and frequent visitor, who asked not to be named. "But a lot of people have the impression that if Yemen were more serious, this would not be a problem at all."

A harsh land of tribes with a warrior tradition, in which there are three weapons - and countless curved daggers - for every citizen, few rulers have been able to impose their will. Some 1,000 miles of unprotected coastline and nearly 1,000 more miles of unmarked desert borders mean old habits persist.

"These are the people who invented the incense trail 4,000 years ago, and moving from incense to smuggling is no problem," says a senior diplomat in Sana, the capital. "Now instead of frankincense, it's shampoo and guns."

A deep sense of religion dates back to the 7th century when Islam spread early to Yemen during the lifetime of the prophet Muhammad. This, combined with some of the most grinding poverty in the region, produced thousands of Yemeni volunteers for the jihad, or "holy war," in Afghanistan.

They were trained in the art of guerrilla warfare in camps run by the CIA in Pakistan. The Saudi-born Bin Laden was one of the top recruiters. Some reckon that one-third of his "jihadists" were Yemeni.

The fallout for Yemen is serious, analysts warn.

"Harboring terrorists," notes London's Jane's Intelligence Review, "has become something of a cottage industry in Yemen."

London's Economist Intelligence Unit says that Yemen "is rapidly generating a reputation for itself as an arms clearing house for regimes of ill repute."

But that's not a universal view.

"To say that Yemen has a cottage industry implies they do this deliberately, and there is no evidence that the government supports this," says the Western diplomat. "The problem is that no government can control it."

Yemen is steeped with militant links. Marxist South Yemen was one of the first countries on the US list of terrorist states in the 1970s. Training camps were common, Palestinian militants of all stripes were welcome, and the guest list included Carlos the Jackal. During a civil war in 1994, President Saleh's north side enlisted Afghan veterans to fight.

"This antiterrorism is just propaganda, it's just make-up on the system for the world to see," says Ali Saleh Obad, head of the opposition Yemen Socialist Party and a survivor of a 1994 Islamist assassination attempt. The government "offers passports and other facilities [to Islamists] ... they are still there."

One measure of Yemen's resolve is the aftermath of the December 1998 kidnapping of 16 Western tourists. Kidnapping by disgruntled tribesmen is routine to leverage handouts form the government.

But this episode was different. For the first time, the kidnappers were a group called the Aden-Abyan Army - a name that resonates in Yemen, because tradition has it that the prophet Muhammad foretold that a band of 12,000 such holy warriors would emerge from this area, to "carry the banner of Islam."

Four of the tourists were killed during a government raid to free them. The leader, Abu al-Hassan - considered un-Islamic by many Afghan veterans because of his extreme views - was unrepentant: "God sent them to us, so we took them," he said in court. "If I live, I will kill some more." Swiftly after sentencing last October, he was executed. But that tough signal was in contrast to revelations that the "army" had high-level support from within the regime. Eight militants were British passport holders who had been arrested with an arsenal of weapons and satellite phones.

"All the things here look like the government is very innocent, but it is behind everything," says a Yemeni analyst in the port city of Aden, who asked not to be named. "The Islamists are getting weaker if there is no government support, with the big guys in power behind them, they are finished."

Even if such action is being taken, there is another issue: weapons trafficking. Illegal arms - including, reportedly, Russian jet fighters - have found their way from Yemen to Somalia and Eritrea, which has been engaged in a brutal border war with Ethiopia. Some 20 Polish tanks bought by Sana also wound up in Sudan - a regime the US accuses of backing terrorism. Sudan is locked in a decades-long ethnic and religious civil war.

Polish newspapers call Yemen a 'black hole' because "arms dealers view Yemen as a country that can sell end-user certificates," which enable dealers to get around arms embargoes on blacklisted nations.

With such a reputation for arms trafficking, Yemen seems to be leading the group of nations that the United Nations accuses of choosing guns over butter. Despite Yemen's poverty, for example, a new budget doubles military spending, with very modest increases for education.

"You can't stop rain by decree, just like you can't make a committee to stop terrorism," says a Yemeni professional in Sana. "First you must change the system."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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