by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 5, Safar, 1423)
A series of explosions at locations in government buildings and buildings adjacent to the US embassy in Sana, the capital of Yemen, and noisy demonstrations against the regime have shown how angry the Yemeni people are becoming at president Ali Saleh’s undiminished cooperation with the American ‘war against terrorism’. At least two of the explosions have been claimed by “al-Qaida sympathisers”. Saleh’s high-profile condemnation of Israel’s war against the Palestinians and his objection to Washington’s threatened attack on Iraq have, if anything, only succeeded in fuelling anti-American resentment among Yemenis. The president’s response to his predicament is to play down the role of US troops in Yemen while confirming his staunch support for the common effort.
The government of Yemen expected the demonstrations to take place and indeed encouraged those designed to show sympathy for the Palestinian people. But the explosions took it by surprise: they occurred despite extreme security measures involving the isolation of areas near the US and British embassies by the deployment of large numbers of security personnel and the closure of roads leading to the embassies. The authorities were able to keep demonstrators away from the embassies and adjacent areas, yet they obviously failed to prevent anti-government and pro-Qaida activists from placing bombs in those areas and in buildings belonging to the intelligence agencies. Even more worrying to the authorities, however, was the statement issued by those claiming credit for the explosions: that future attacks would be directed against “leading personalities”, and would be intended to be lethal if the government fails to release the “young mujahideen” and those whose only suspected crime is membership of al-Qaida.
The first statement— signed by “al-Qaida sympathisers” — came on April 12 and claimed responsibility for the explosion on that day as well as previous ones. The explosion, the second in a week, took place near the house of Muhammad Rizq al-Hamdani, a senior officer in the intelligence services, and, like the others, did not cause any loss of life or destruction of buildings. As his house is close to the US embassy, the incident was also read as a message to the Americans. The statement, distributed to local newspapers in Sana by email, emphasised that the purpose of the effort was solely to give a message to those targeted, and underlined the fact that the 173 detainees on the lower floor of the Intelligence Services building are “only suspected on being members of al-Qaida”. And unless the authorities solve the issue of the young detainees in intelligence services buildings, the war will be taken to senior politicians, the statement added.
The second statement came a day after the explosions targeting the civil airlines headquarters in Sana on April 16. Signed by the same “al-Qaida sympathisers”, it said that the building also served as an ‘operational room’ for intelligence services, and claimed credit for the incident. The statement warned that those who “cooperate with the Americans against Muslims, particularly al-Mujahideen, are committing a breach of Islam” and, therefore, that their lives and wealth are expendable. Making it clear that the authorities were also detaining the parents and children of the mujahideen, it warned that the operations would continue as long as they remained in detention, and repeated the time-limit of 30 days and the threat to raise the operations to the level of political assassinations.
But it also added a new warning: that people living next to a building belonging to the intelligence services should move away for their own safety, and apologising for the inconvenience such relocation would inevitably cause. It also apologised for the inconvenience of the explosions and promised to compensate for any damage to buildings and other property. But the statement made its most provocative remarks in its last paragraph, appealing to the authorities to release the young mujahideen for the sake of the general interest of the Yemeni people: “In order to protect all our interests, let the young mujahideen out of your jails and leave the Americans, if you are afraid of them, to the heroic Shaikh Usama bin Ladin and prince-of-the-believers Mullah Muhammad Omar,” the statement concluded.
The explosions and these statements were certainly more alarming to the Yemeni authorities and the US government than the demonstrations taking place in Sana at the same time. But the demonstrations also made both uneasy, because the demonstrators not only called on all Arabs to end relations with the US and Israel but also advocated support for Hamas and Hizbullah, which the Americans regard as terrorist organizations and legitimate targets for the ‘war against terrorism’, which Saleh supports openly. During the demonstrations on April 12, for instance, tens of thousands poured onto the streets of Sana after the Friday prayers, shouting slogans against US-Israeli terrorism and calling on Arab leaders to adopt “decisive stances against America and Israel”. They also raised pictures of Hamas leader Shaikh Ahmad Yassin and of Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrullah, demanding that the ‘door of jihad’ be opened in Palestine. The demonstrators, almost 20,000 of them, were prevented from carrying their protests to the US embassy by the security forces.
The following Friday (April 19), thousands of demonstrators marched to the US embassy but were turned back by security forces using teargas and live bullets, which they fired into the air. They had intended to hand in a protest petition to the US ambassador, but the security forces again used teargas and live bullets to disperse them, wounding four demonstrators and arresting many.
Saleh is trying to counter these damaging developments by playing down the significance of the US troops’ presence in Yemen and the number of al-Qaida fighters there, and by exaggerating his commitment to the Palestinian cause and rejection of American threats against Iraq. On April 17, for instance, he despatched Dr Abdul-Karim al-Aryani, his political advisor, to Baghdad to deliver a letter to president Saddam Hussein pledging his firm support for the Palestinians and for Iraq. Al-Aryani said at a press-conference in Baghdad that Saleh was working hard to bring about an early reconciliation between Kuwait and Iraq.
President Saleh did not, however, leave the issue of US troops and al-Qaida to any of his aides; instead he dealt with it himself during a newspaper interview on April 21. He told La Stampa, an Italian daily, that “the number of US special forces in Yemen is about 40, and they are there only for the purpose of training local forces to combat terrorism,” also adding that they will stay a week or two but not longer than a month, although “they can come back if needed”. Saleh also said that there were no al-Qaida military camps, conceding only the presence of al-Qaida “secret cells here and there”, which he was certain would be eliminated soon.
Saleh is hoping that the presence of a ‘small number’ of US special forces will prove acceptable to his people so long as they do not take part in any fighting. The US government is confident that Saleh’s commitment to the ‘war against terrorism’ is irreversible. American commentators have argued that Saleh will not make the mistake he made in 1991, when he refused to join the war against Iraq, and Washington reduced US aid to Yemen sharply.
But Muslims can see clearly enough that the ‘war against terrorism’ is mainly against Muslims, and Israel’s crimes in Palestine are making alliance with the US a costly option for Arab rulers.