by Catherine Shakdam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 9, Muharram, 1436)
Al Qaeda is being used in Yemen to fight the Houthis and to frustrate the people’s aspirations for their legitimate rights. The Saudis are waist deep in this grand conspiracy.
The Western corporate media and much of Yemen’s political class continue to focus on the rise of the Houthis, attempting to decipher what they perceive as a political impossibility, an aberration that carries no long-term significance. After all, until 2011 the Zaidi faction was but a speck on the country’s political map. Al-Qaeda meanwhile has expanded its pull, threatening to plunge the impoverished country into the chasm of war.
Looking at developments in the Muslim East (aka the Middle East) and how various countries have fallen prey to radicalism under the black flag of terror, one can understand the dangers that now stand at Yemen’s door. These assume special significance at this time because the country faces deep internal dissension — politically, socially, economically and institutionally.
So far if politicians have been most keen to pin Yemen’s ongoing instability on the Houthis, out of sheer religious and political prejudice rather than legitimate fears, none has cared to look within to recognize that radicalism grew under the nurturing shadow of al-Islah, a political faction that acts as an umbrella for hardcore Salafis.
It is precisely this propensity to remain blinded by political hatred and negative sectarian sentiment that has fuelled al-Qaeda’s fire thus far. This has allowed al-Qaeda leadership to sink its fangs deeper into Yemen. This once united and peaceful country has been turned into yet another veritable terror incubus, right in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.
Should Yemen ever fall to al-Qaeda as have parts of Syria and Iraq to the takfiris operating under the inappropriate name, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the entire region encompassing Africa, the Muslim East and Western Asia, would find itself swallowed up by the radical tsunami of perpetual sectarian war.
Yemen’s geostrategic position was what attracted radicals in the first place as militants quickly understood the tactical advantages the country had to offer. Battered by poverty and plagued by corruption, Yemen has been a haven and a fertile ground for al-Qaeda for several decades.
It is important to understand that the precipice Yemen stands to fall into today has been brought about by those very people the Yemenis came to know as their officials. If Islahi politicians were able for decades to hide behind veils and “faux-semblants,” feigning to serve the people while their loyalties were to another master, namely Saudi Arabia, it is actually the arrival of the Houthis that has blown the lid off this can of lies, exposing to the world an uncomfortable truth.
As it happens, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s warning about al-Islah, the allegations he made regarding its members’ ties to radicalism back in 2011 should have been heeded. As masks have slipped, al-Qaeda and al-Islah have turned out to be one and the same, two faces of the same terror coin.
Just as Yemenis thought their country had finally turned a difficult corner following the Houthis’ flash takeover of the capital, Sana‘a, and the subsequent announcement by President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi that the people’s call for change would be answered, al-Islah reverted to its destabilization tactics to regain lost ground. Its political powerhouse in tatters, al-Islah slipped back into the shadows where it came from and called on its military wing, al-Qaeda to declare war on the Houthis, determined to play sectarian games to reaffirm its hold on the impoverished country and President Hadi’s fledging leadership.
It is almost impossible to look at al-Qaeda’s recent attacks without understanding what powers are pulling the group’s strings. In a move that has deeply shocked Yemenis, al-Qaeda, the very group that only last summer vowed it would never willingly put civilians in harm’s way, targeted a Houthi gathering at the heart of the capital. It appeared oblivious or indifferent to the pain such an attack was bound to inflict. According to the health ministry an estimated 47 Yemenis, including women and children, were killed in the bomb attack and an additional 75 were injured, making it the single most deadly terror attack against civilians in Yemen.
On October 16, days after the Houthis returned Ibb to full state control, in keeping with the wishes of President Hadi, Islahi loyalists turned the province into a battleground. No longer hiding behind its terrorist affiliates, al-Islah has declared war on the people of Yemen and whoever dares oppose its will, in this case the Houthis.
As al-Islah works to erode Yemen’s ailing state institutions, playing on officials’ greed and ambitions to sow discord and prevent political progress, al-Qaeda has resorted to the most dangerous of all cards: sectarianism.
With no other arrow left in its sling, al-Qaeda is banking on the Yemenis’ irrational fear of Shi‘i Islam to not only drive the Houthis back into their northern stronghold of Sa‘ada but to prevent fair representation from truly taking hold. Regardless of one’s political inclinations, the Houthis have by all accounts presented Yemen with an historic opportunity, having enabled its people to exercise their right of political self-determination.
If 2011 was about al-Islah disposing of a difficult political adversary — President Saleh — 2014 has been described as Yemen’s march to free and fair representation, made possible under the impetus of the Houthis.
Even though the Houthis have given Yemenis no reason to doubt their intentions, especially since Abdel-Malek al-Houthi has systematically fulfilled his promises of non-interference in people’s affairs, Yemen’s bigots have called for religious cleansing, arguing that Shi‘ah Islam is the real enemy to be fought against, not al-Qaeda.
It is the same sickening narrative that terror radicals have perpetuated across the region, from Libya to Iraq and Syria, systematically calling on Muslims to tear each other apart rather than stand together against those who seek to lay them to waste. An insidious force, al-Qaeda and Co. have fed off Islam’s old feud, using ill-placed religious sentiments, ignorance and a false-sense of righteousness against people and countries, slowly turning the Islamic world into a burning pit of hatred.
For all the grief Yemenis have had to endure over the decades — poverty, injustice and inequalities — it is likely this battle against al-Qaeda will prove most taxing and challenging as it will involve people’s abilities to see deep-seated prejudices of the past.
Until everyone realizes that terror is born of and fed by fear and evil, people will continue to fall in unnecessary conflict and strife will spread. Yemen, however, has not yet completely fallen to the terror monster. It could actually be the one country that could actually successfully turn the tide.
Unlike other countries in the region, Yemen has never experienced the fury of sectarianism. Religiously at peace with one another, Yemenis have never, that is until al-Qaeda surfaced, defined themselves along sectarian lines, preferring instead to see in each other a common aspiration for a greater understanding of the divine.
As pointed by religious scholar Muhammad Hammad, “The people of Yemen came to Islam under Imam ‘Ali’s (ra) guidance, such was Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) confidence in his most trusted lieutenant’s ability to bring hearts and minds to the light of Allah (swt). It would be a betrayal of our faith to allow division to be sown in Imam ‘Ali’s name… since really this is what Shi‘ah Islam is all about… are they not the people of ‘Ali?”