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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 17:24 GMT
Yemen resumes war on al-Qaeda
The damaged USS Cole in Aden harbour
The attack on the USS Cole in was blamed on al-Qaeda
By Middle East analyst Nick Pelham in Sanaa

For a country with three times as many weapons as people, a Yemeni gun-battle is hardly world news.

That is except when the gun-battle involves al-Qaeda.

For a country anxious to rid itself of the reputation as the safest haven for Muslim militants in the Arab world, Wednesday's report of an al-Qaeda suspect blowing himself up during a security services raid in the Yemeni capital may come as some welcome relief to the authorities.

But will the raid be enough to satisfy Washington?

True, the security forces, even by their own reports, hardly excelled.

Yemeni police say they allowed the suspect to escape in a taxi before he accidentally blew himself up with a hand-grenade.

But at least the Yemenis can now say to the Americans that after a two-month lull they have resumed the war on al-Qaeda.

Intense pressure to act

During the last raid against alleged al-Qaeda members, 18 soldiers were killed.

Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The Yemeni president is under pressure from the US to act against al-Qaeda
The attack on a tribal village near Maarib was led by the president's son Colonel Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Since then, President Ali Abdullah Saleh opted to wage war on al-Qaeda mostly by negotiation.

The resumption of the use of force follows intense US pressure on Yemen.

Monday's FBI alert that Yemenis were planning to attack American targets was the first time that Washington had publicly pinpointed Yemen since 11 September.

Some US politicians had called for Yemen to be a second theatre of the "war on terrorism".

The threats acquired added credence after two senior US generals, Tommy Franks, the Commander in Chief of US Central Command, and his predecessor, Anthony Zinni, came to Sanaa to talk President Saleh.

Hours later, FBI investigators were back in Yemen and US military advisers were preparing to help Yemen co-ordinate its war on al-Qaeda.

Afghan jihad

The US Navy has also beefed up its patrol of the country's 1,700km (1,056 mile) coast in an attempt to stop al-Qaeda fighters seeking refuge in Yemen.

The US has cause to be alarmed. Yemenis estimate that more than 5,000 countrymen went off to fight in the Afghan jihad. Western estimates are even higher - ranging between 20,000 to 40,000.

Fawaz Yahya al-Rabeei
Al-Rabeei, a Yemeni, is alleged by the FBI to be planning an attack on the US
And like Saudi Arabia, but unlike almost all other Arab states, President Saleh has repeatedly shared power with the Islamists.

Leading ex-Afghan warriors, such as Tarik al-Fadli from the President's own political party, openly voice their support for Osama bin Laden.

And throughout the 1990s, the Islamists have entrenched their position in schools, the interior ministry and the army.

Yemeni invitation

The US says its personnel are arriving at Yemen's invitation.

But until now, Yemen was the only country in the Arabian peninsula without an American military presence, and as in Saudi Arabia, there is fierce opposition to the presence of American troops.

An attack attributed to al-Qaeda on the US naval vessel, USS Cole, in October 2000 while it was docked in the Yemeni port of Aden, had widespread support in Yemen.

In this fiercely independent country, politicians complain the US is using its war on terror to control Yemen's decision-makers.

Nor is President Saleh quite a free agent. Despite his 24-year rule, he survives less as head of a nation state than a first among equals.

A few miles from the Yemeni capital, state law stops and tribal law starts. Tribes will resent any incursion or raid on their territory.

Islamist opposition

Added to the independence of the tribes is the opposition of the Islamists.

US Marines in Afghanistan
Some US officials want Yemen to the next theatre of the "war on terrorism"
Since the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen 40 years ago, radical Islamists have sought to propagate their preaching in the tribal heartlands.

Tribal warlords lead the military arm of the Islamist movement. And the tribal-Islamist alliance is personified by Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar.

He is chieftain of the Hashed tribe, Yemen's strongest, and head of the Muslim Brotherhood party al-Islah. In tribal terms, Mr Saleh is his underling.

Under the banner of modernisation, Mr Saleh dreams of consolidating his hold.

The long-running Yemeni battle against the tribal kidnappers has been subsumed into the war on terror.

To help him, Europe, Japan and the World Bank, provide Sanaa with $350m in aid.

Talk of a further $200m in aid from Washington has yet to materialise, but this week the World Bank vice-president was in Yemen signing deals for the enforcement of state law, property rights, and the expansion of the road system. All three are an anathema to tribal leaders.

Islamist backlash?

Meanwhile President Saleh is moving against the Islamists.

Even before 11 September, he had banned Islamist schools, although many still remain open. Similarly there is a paper ban on bearing arms in the main towns.

Could Mr Saleh withstand a combined tribal and Islamist backlash?

Until Mr Saleh came to power in 1978, Yemeni presidents counted their life expectancy in months.

But barring Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, Mr Saleh is now the longest reigning leader in the Arab world. He remains a master of political wheeler dealing.

With Mr Saleh apparently singing from Washington's hymn sheet, it is hard to see how the US would allow him to fall.

See also:

12 Feb 02 | Americas
Alert stirs US terror fears
12 Feb 02 | Americas
FBI's new terror suspects
11 Feb 02 | Americas
US probes Afghan missile strike
11 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Timeline: Yemen
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