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Last Updated: Monday, 2 April 2007, 07:22 GMT 08:22 UK
Yemeni women sign up to fight terror
By Ginny Hill
BBC News, Yemen

Farah, a Yemeni woman in the Counter Terrorism Unit
Afrah and her colleagues are challenging people's attitudes to women
Afrah pulls back her camouflage jacket to show me the pistol strapped to her belt.

Her military uniform is specially designed to meet Islamic principles of modesty, with a long, loose tunic and long sleeves.

She travelled to work this morning wearing a veil and a full-length black balto, an all-encompassing cloak which is traditional dress for women in Yemen.

But now she is dressed in fatigues, heavy black boots and shades.

Afrah, 23, is one of 20 women recruited to join Yemen's elite counter-terrorism unit (CTU) last summer.

Only 13 recruits have stayed the course, after a rigorous training programme that has taught them how to enter a house by force, drive a Hummer military vehicle and shoot.

Yahya Saleh, chief of staff of Yemen's Central Security Forces, sponsored the creation of the women's unit and supervises the CTU.

He says the women's main purpose is to follow their male colleagues on house raids and search any women they encounter.

"Male terrorists often disguise themselves as women in order to evade detection and arrest, but Yemen's strict social code means that women suspects cannot be touched by the men on the unit," he explains.

Yemen's Political Security Organisation runs a separate team of women, trained to gather and assess intelligence, but Afrah and her colleagues in the CTU are the only women to put themselves at the sharp end of Yemeni counter-terrorism.

"At the beginning, we were afraid," she says, "but now we're getting used to our job."

Family values

The CTU is barracked in a special compound at the Central Security Forces headquarters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. The grounds are bristling with uniformed men carrying AK-47s. Access is tightly restricted.

The women are housed separately from the men but they study and take part in training exercises alongside their male counterparts.

At the beginning, my family was divided about my new job. My father opposed me but my mother supported me. Gradually, my mum convinced him

As part of the programme, they learn first aid and study English on-site at the Frances Guy Academy - named after a former British ambassador.

Afrah, Saba and sisters Kfaih and Faten are resting in the locker rooms during their lunch-break.

All in their early 20s, they were recruited from the military police.

Nine of their peers are away studying in the United States for additional training, but this group of four were refused permission to travel by their relatives.

Yemen is an extremely conservative society, where a woman's honour reflects on her whole family.

Leaving the country without a chaperone was a step too far for worried parents who had already struggled to accept their daughters' employment in the police force.

"At the beginning, my family was divided about my new job," says Saba.

"My father opposed me but my mother supported me. Gradually, my mum convinced him that we have separate rooms from the men, and that we're not mingling with them unsupervised. Now he accepts my choice."

Afrar agrees she is a pioneer who is "challenging people's ideas about what is possible for women in Yemen".

In a country where unemployment runs at 40%, these women are evidently proud of their jobs and pleased to take a regular income home to their families.

Counter-terrorism and economics

The CTU, established in 2003, is seen as a success by British and American trainers.

CTU teams recently captured and killed three convicted terrorists during shoot-outs in two house raids in Sanaa and a separate operation in the southern province of Abiyan. The trio were on the run after tunnelling their way out of prison in February 2006.

[The CTU is] one of our favourite security institutions to work with because it's new and there is no corruption. They're willing to try new approaches and tactics
Nabeel Khoury
US embassy in Sanaa

"It's a good unit," says Nabeel Khoury, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Sanaa. "It's one of our favourite security institutions to work with because it's new and there is no corruption.

"They are forward-looking and proactive. They're willing to try new approaches and tactics. And they are growing gradually, as they develop additional capacity."

Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, walks a fine line on counter-terrorism. His strategy must appease Yemeni public opinion, which is often hostile to America and Israel, and yet also satisfy the West.

The Yemeni army are currently battling an insurgency in the northern province of Saada, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. The sporadic three-year rebellion started, in part, as a protest against Mr Saleh's alliance with the current US administration. Hundreds have died since fighting broke out again at the start of the year.

At the same time, Mr Saleh can't afford to alienate potential donors. His country suffers from faltering economic prospects and dwindling oil reserves.

Reform and corruption

Early stages of an aggressive reform drive, designed to stamp out corruption and boost the independence of the judiciary, have already generated a wave of optimism among countries with an interest in Yemen's development.

In November 2006, Britain and Yemen's Gulf neighbours pledged 2.3bn ($4.7bn) in aid over the next four years. And in February, US AID re-instated Yemen's eligibility to apply to the Millennium Challenge Account, a Bush administration plan that ties aid to governance benchmarks and could reward up to 250m ($500m) in long-term assistance.

"There is no doubt that Yemen faces a real and renewed threat from home-grown terrorism," says Kevin Rosser, an oil and gas analyst at risk consulting firm Control Risks.

"Last year's attempted suicide attacks on two major oil facilities would have paralysed Yemen's oil industry and crippled the economy, if they had succeeded."

The attackers were shot as they drove their car bombs towards their intended targets, foiling the plot.

A new group called al-Qaeda Yemen subsequently claimed responsibility, warning that "these operations are only the first spark" and what is coming is "more severe and bitter".

Yemen fears return of insurgency
05 Feb 07 |  Middle East
Yemeni Jews flee Islamist threat
28 Jan 07 |  Middle East
Yemen gets real taste of democracy
15 Sep 06 |  Middle East
Country profile: Yemen
13 Nov 06 |  Country profiles

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