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.

Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
Yemeni police troopers search cars at the gate of Sanaa International Airport Tuesday.

Trailing in the dirt behind a taxi here is a soiled Israeli flag with red boot prints, meant to symbolize the blood of Palestinians.

It may be a small protest by Yemeni college student and driver Abdul Jabbar al-Suhaili, who says he wishes Osama bin Laden were president. But the display taps into a far broader and perennial issue that continues to draw recruits for Al Qaeda; engenders mistrust of the US, Israel’s closest ally; and echoes answers given in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?

“There are many guys all over the world with Al Qaeda, because they see the US and Israel are fighting to steal their resources,” asserts Mr. Suhaili. “So what should people do? They fight.”

Why does a conflict more than 1,200 miles away from this southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula – one that has raged three times longer than this 20-year-old has been alive – matter to him?

Palestine will remain in our hearts until liberation – this is the least we can do. Israel has done nothing for us – it kills Muslims, makes problems for everyone, and doesn’t listen to the United Nations.”

It’s a common refrain across the Muslim world. But in Yemen, where the local Al Qaeda affiliate dramatically expanded the reach of attempted attacks in 2009 – capping it by claiming to be behind a plot to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day, such sentiments have taken on new relevance for the West.

The failed Christmas Day bombing also highlighted the threat for Yemen’s government, which is under heightened international pressure to address the problem.

“The problem is there, we know about it, and it was going to blow at some time,” says Abdullah al-Faqih, a political scientist at Sanaa University in the capital. “This incident brought it to focus.”

“A lot could have been done earlier,” says Mr. Faqih. “This is a government of firefighters – it is fighting fires all the time. But no one thinks about the reasons behind the fires.”

How Al Qaeda recruits in Yemen

The adage that “all politics is local” applies to each branch of Al Qaeda, as it does in Yemen, where Islamist militants can work with relative ease inside a tribal structure; and where weak government and a heavy hand in two other conflicts provides ready-made talking points. But among the constants on Al Qaeda’s list of global grievances – and recruiting tools – has been the Israel-Palestine conflict, says Saeed Ali al-Jemhi.

“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.

“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.”

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