Training Day, How Yemen Aids and Abets Iraqi Insurgents
YEMEN OPERATES LARGELY under the radar as a supporter of the global jihad. Both Yemeni and U.S. officials publicly tout Yemen’s partnership with the United States in the war on terror. The U.S. embassy in Sana’a described the February 2006 escape of 23 al Qaeda operatives from a maximum security jail as “understandable in a way,” considering Yemen’s rampant corruption, weak institutions, and bureaucratic incompetence. (The escapees included several Cole bombers and an American associated with the Lackawanna, New York terror cell.) Presidential assistant Frances Townsend has described the Yemeni regime as an “inconsistent” partner in the war on terror, but Yemen has been quite consistent in its appeasement and facilitation of al Qaeda and related jihadi groups, and, as a result, has played a significant role in the destabilization of Iraq.
Yemeni jihadists are found in Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Yemenis also comprise one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in Iraq. 1,289 Yemeni men had traveled to Iraq for jihad by mid-2006, and 153 of them had been killed, according to the Yemeni weekly Al Tajamo. Other reports place the figure as high as 1800. Most were teenagers, the paper found, and were swayed by extremist religious rhetoric. The majority went to Iraq during 2006, indicating an uptick in the flow.
Yemenis and North Africans perpetrate the bulk of suicide bombings in Iraq, a U.S. official reported. Yemenis Khaldoun al-Hukaimi and Saleh Mana escaped from an Aden prison in 2003 where they were held in connection with the bombing of the USS Cole. They committed suicide attacks in Baghdad in July 2005. A Yemeni thought complicit in the beheading of two Russian diplomats in Iraq was arrested in Aden with the assistance of Russian intelligence, and members of the Yemeni military have facilitated the training of many of the terrorists who later find their way to Iraq.
The collusion between Yemen’s military and its Salafi jihadists is well documented. President Saleh utilized Afghan Arab Jihadists as a paramilitary force in the 1994 civil war against the Socialist forces of the former South Yemen, and Saleh is currently deploying Salafi Jihaddists (including members of the Aden Abyan Islamic Army) against a band of Shiite rebels in Yemen’s northern Sa’ada region. In February 2007, the Yemeni Defense Ministry publicized a fatwa legitimizing the killing of the rebels and their supporters as an Islamic obligation.
It’s a two way street: Yemeni terrorists fight on behalf of the military; the military trains the terrorists. Families of suicide bombers reported that their sons and brothers were trained with the knowledge of security officials and the logistical support of high ranking members of the Yemeni military, al-Tajamo reported. Other sources noted that safe houses were established in the capital to house the newly minted jihadists until their travel arrangements could be finalized (These arrangements regularly include forged documents and transit via airplane to Syria.).
In May 2005, a Yemeni government official stated that elements of the Yemeni secret services had established training camps for exiled Iraqi Ba’athists who wished to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. A number of sources reported that Yemen was using chlorine gas against the Shiite rebels in 2005, a full year before foreign fighters in Iraq adopted the same tactic.
In July 2006, during a highly publicized effort to stem the flow of combatants to Iraq, the regime prohibited men under 35 from traveling by air to Syria and Jordan without permission. After the rule came into effect, News Yemen reported that Yemeni Abdulbaset Ali Ahmed Bashaiba traveled to Mosul where he perpetrated a suicide car bombing. The paper noted that Yemenis among the Iraqi resistance were reportedly supported in Yemen by “influential powers, (who) work on preparing these youths, by training them on fight operations, using explosives and driving cars.”
The courts in Yemen have also gone to great lengths to appease jihadists. A Yemeni court ruled in July that Yemeni law does not criminalize fighting with terrorists forces in Iraq. Nineteen suspects were tried on charges of belonging to the al Qaeda linked “Zarqawi Cell.” Six of the nineteen were convicted on a lesser charge of forging official documents, though the defendants admitted fighting with the Iraqi resistance. A Yemeni court found that joining the Iraqi insurgency did not violate Yemeni law as “Islamic Shari’a law permits jihad against occupiers.” In another case, an official of the charitable association Al-Hikma was arrested for facilitating a jihadist’s travel to Iraq. However, the official was released following intervention by senior security leaders, local press reported.
The indoctrination of jihadists occurs in many places and in many ways. On the broadest level, leading public figures, including President Saleh, promote a culture that legitimizes terror activities that occur outside Yemen. Saleh publicly praises and endorses “resistance against occupation.” In the context of Yemen’s current war in Sa’ada, authorities instructed Salafi preachers to increase their rhetoric against Shiites. Beheading videos are sold in shops. Some titles include, “Slaughter of American Soldiers in Iraq,” “Al Qaeda Victories in Fallujah in Iraq,” and “Killing of Traitors in Afghanistan.”
Terror supporters are given public platforms to speak to Yemeni youth. In December, the exiled head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq, Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, extolled the virtues of Iraqi resistance at Sana’a University during a symposium organized by the Yemeni Popular Committee to Support Palestinian, Lebanon, Iraqi Resistance. Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, president Saleh’s nephew, head of Yemen’s Central Security Forces, head of the committee and the sponsor of the symposium, praised the Iraqi resistance and its ability to cause casualties to the occupation forces. Yahya Saleh also heads one of Yemen’s counter-terrorism units.
Beyond material and moral support, Yemen harbors a number of wanted terrorists. The Iraqi insurgency maintains a significant operational base in Yemen. Over 26,000 Iraqis are estimated to have relocated to Yemen since 2003, including former Iraq Vice President Ezzat Al Douri. In January, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that Iraqi intelligence had been tracking al-Douri in Yemen for some time. In November 2005, Iraqi officials requested through Interpol that Yemen extradite Saddam Hussein’s nephew, Omar Sabawi Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti. Al-Tikriti is suspected of directing and financing terror organizations operating in Northern Iraq. The Yemeni regime has been unable to locate al-Tikriti. In February of 2007, the Iraqi government demanded that Yemen hand over “the rest of the Iraqi Baathist regime,” threatening to call in Yemen’s debts accrued during Saddam’s reign.
The extent of the Yemeni regime’s commitment to the jihadist mentality became apparent in October 2000. The bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden was accomplished with the assistance of high level Yemeni officials and the government largely stonewalled the FBI’s investigation. After 9/11, the regime grudgingly signed on to U.S. counter-terror efforts. However, many of the operatives thought complicit in the Cole bombing were later released, given light sentences, or managed to escape multiple times. With Yemen currently teetering on state failure, intensified U.S. pressure for administrative reform in Yemen, a mafia-like kleptocracy, may be too little, too late.
The Yemeni regime is adroit at producing propaganda designed for Western consumption. President Saleh is often perceived as attempting to co-opt militant extremists into the political system in order to abate their radical tendencies; however, the regime’s ongoing détente with al Qaeda is clear. The flow of Yemeni jihadists into Iraq brings into question the extent to which extremists embedded within the administration have co-opted the tools of the Yemeni state. As formal political institutions in Yemen rapidly devolve, Yemen many already have reached the tipping point in becoming an al Qaeda sponsored state.