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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 13:41 GMT
Yemen's catalyst for change
Sana'a street scene
Sana'a is still a very conservative city
Yemen's reputation as a sanctuary for terror suspects is beginning to change, says the BBC's Brian Barron.

Strolling through the raucous markets in the walled city of Sana'a the other day, the wife of a Yemeni friend suddenly found herself right behind two figures shrouded in the black veils favoured by most women.

It was their hairy feet and muscular build that betrayed them. They were men, speaking in what might have been Chechen.


To us, not carrying a rifle is a sign of femininity

Director of Culture
Transvestites are not a feature on the streets of this conservative capital. My friend's wife is still wondering whether she had bumped into an al-Qaeda cell on a shopping trip.

Few Yemenis would voluntarily contact the Political Security Organisation - the secret police who detain some terrorist suspects indefinitely, regardless of their constitutional rights.

But the mere fact that an ordinary middle-class family in Yemen at least contemplated a call to responsible officials, having encountered a pair of improbably sinister figures, is a mark of how things are shifting.

Bad reputation

Until relatively recently, Yemen had been regarded by the West as a maverick state in the murky Middle East orbit of law and disorder and counter-terrorism.

That reputation seems just, given the indications compiled by Western monitors of powerful individuals in the north and south of Yemen - individuals who encouraged, and even profited from, international terrorists.


At present, even Yemen's most hardline mullahs are silent. The authorities have hauled religious schools into line

Two traumatic events were the catalysts for Yemen's new attitude. The first was the attack by an al-Qaeda cell on an American warship in the southern port of Aden nearly 18 months ago. But the decisive event was 11 September.

Today, holed up in an American mission fronted by sandbags and armed Yemeni security personnel, Ambassador Edmund Hull is a decidedly hard-boiled envoy - maybe the State Department's toughest anti-terrorism expert.

With a B52 metaphorically in one hand, and the spectre of smart bombs in the other, the ambassador has reinforced the wake-up call for Yemen.

President Saleh has been responsive though he still maintains there is no conclusive evidence linking Osama bin Laden to the terrorist acts in America.

But at present, even Yemen's most hardline mullahs are silent. The authorities have hauled religious schools into line.

Ali Abdullah Saleh
President Saleh still says bin Laden may not be behind the US attacks
I called at the institute of the most unyielding anti-Western imam in Sana'a and was told he was sick and unavailable. All classes were suspended.

A young black American student said he wasn't sure what was happening, but he hoped that foreigners like him weren't going to be deported.

We arranged to meet that evening for a longer chat. He never showed up - perhaps fearful of the ubiquitous Political Security Organisation.

Militants subdued

There are other signs of the government getting a firmer grip. In a nation of 18 million, there are 60 million firearms - many of them automatic weapons brought back by the 40,000 Yemeni volunteers who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in their crusade against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that ended 13 years ago.

Usually when the Sana'a authorities announce a crackdown on firearms, or punitive measures against kidnapping, there's a mixed response at best. But the latest decrees have certainly diminished the bearing of lethal weapons in cities.

The other day there was a reminder of why so many Yemenis want to be armed. I was in Marib, east of the capital. It's an awesomely wild region of black volcanic deserts with shifting sand-dunes hundreds of feet high - and everywhere there are guns.

Yemen mountains
Outside the cities, tribal emnities still hold sway
The director of culture gave us a lift from Marib town hall. "You might wonder why I've got a gun here," he said, half pulling a loaded AK47 from under the dashboard.

"We all need weapons here. My tribe is in a blood feud with its neighbour. In my father's time we killed three of them, and they shot two of ours. They still have one more death to take revenge for. If I meet them without a gun, they'll kill me."

The director of culture stroked the gun barrel and added: "To us, not carrying a rifle is a sign of femininity."

In these far-flung tribal regions, the kidnapping of foreigners was once a growth industry. In Marib governorate the figures are startling - 157 abducted in the past six years, mostly for ransom payments.

Fortunately the army and paramilitary police are out in force in their search for al-Qaeda fugitives - so right now it's as safe as it gets.

But you can't help wondering whether the eyes that follow you in the dusty desert villages are, perhaps, calculating your value as a commodity like in the bad old days.

See also:

15 Feb 02 | Middle East
Terror suspects held in Yemen
14 Feb 02 | Middle East
Yemen resumes war on al-Qaeda
13 Feb 02 | Middle East
Al-Qaeda suspect dies in Yemen blast
11 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Timeline: Yemen
11 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Yemen
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