The campaign to vanquish Al-Qaida has a new front: Yemen. The number of fighters bin Laden has there may be low, but they have lots of local support.
It is hard to say what is more upsetting: the reports of Al-Qaida's recruitment of "Western-looking women" to assist it in perpetrating attacks on aircraft, or the story that the Sunday Times published last week, citing the specifications that Osama bin Laden gave a close associate charged with finding him a suitable Yemeni woman to be his fifth wife. Or, perhaps, the latest audio recording, which was publicized early last week, ought to frighten us?
In it one hears bin Laden's soft voice warning the U.S. president, in likeable familiarity, "from Osama to Obama," that he will be compelled to dispatch additional bombs until the United States takes heed of his messages. It is not just that this man is still alive, despite a nine-year manhunt for him, but that he is able to manage an empire, open new fronts and force the world's citizens to remove their shoes in front of airport security agents as though they were about to enter a mosque.
Yemen is his new front. This failed state - that is unable to feed its 23 million citizens, whose army does not control all its districts, that is being choked by three fronts of battle, and is in danger of being split into two states - is also the bin Laden family's homeland. In the north, at its border with Saudi Arabia, a fifth round of warfare erupted between the government versus the Al-Houthi family and the followers of the Shi'ite Zaidi sect, which invaded Saudi Arabia as well and drew its military forces into battle. In the south, where three of Yemen's large districts are located, the Liberation Movement of Southern Yemen is waging a political campaign designed to create a southern autonomous entity or a return to an independent state, as it had been until Yemen was united in 1990.
Among all this, Al-Qaida's activists found an opportunity to create, inside Yemen, a niche for terror activity. This niche threatens the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Red Sea to the Gulf (and Port) of Aden and, beyond it, the Indian Ocean. It provides a sanctuary for the movement's activists in Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa, and is capable of exporting terrorists overseas, as it demonstrated when Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab was caught, on Christmas Day, trying to blow up a Delta-Northwest plane on its approach into Detroit.
It is difficult to estimate the number of Al-Qaida activists in Yemen. According to the Yemeni foreign minister, Abu Baker al-Qerbi, some 100 of the organization's people are in his country, but they have the support of thousands more. American intelligence assessments talk of several hundred militants, most of whom are Yemeni, but there are also Saudis, Kuwaitis and Al-Qaida activists who fled from Iraq.
During the 1980s Yemen was an important source of volunteers for bin Laden as he fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The American administration considered him a channel for bypassing Congress, in its desire to provide money, equipment and training for volunteers that Washington could not finance directly. When that war ended, many volunteers returned to Yemen and some of them continued to operate against American targets or the Yemeni government.
One of bin Laden's close former advisers, Sheikh Rashad Mohammed Saeed Ismael, nicknamed Abu al-Fida, told a correspondent from the Sunday Times that in the late 1990s he was sent to Yemen to find bin Laden a bride, who would be "religious, obedient, generous, well brought-up, quiet, calm and young enough not to feel jealous of the sheikh's other wives." That bride was found after a long search. Her name is Amal and she came from one of Yemen's large tribes. Abu al-Fida said he considered her suitable in part because she belonged to a modest family and was used to daily hardships, and thus could join bin Laden's nomadic life in Afghanistan.
However, it is not romance alone that ties Al-Qaida's leader to Yemen. According to U.S. intelligence assessments, Al-Qaida's fighters in Yemen have been following a different tactic than the one that guided them in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They try to become absorbed into the local Yemeni population and marry women who belong to the southern tribes there. They also invest heavily in developing a civilian infrastructure. In Iraq they fought Sunni tribes and Shi'ite targets, in Saudi Arabia they struck government targets and peeved the royal family. In Yemen, on the other hand, they act as a welfare institution similar to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon. They buy medicine for the tribesmen in the areas where they live, open schools, dig wells and finance weddings.
Bin Laden followed a similar tactic when he lived in Sudan, where he invested in construction of a major road and a pharmaceuticals plant. He ordered his adherents to follow a similar track in other African states, too.
This tactic seizes upon the Yemeni government's weakness: its inability to supply welfare services and education to the country's tribesmen. The latter, more than supporting Al-Qaida's ideology, consider his organization a source for economic well-being.
Here, then, is one source of the differences between the Yemeni government and Washington. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is deeply concerned about the campaign against the Shi'ite secessionists in the north and the movement to split Yemen in the south. The United States, for its part, is demanding he act decisively against Al-Qaida and contradicts the Yemeni president's claim that Iran is meddling in his country's affairs and supports Shi'ite secessionists. In an interview with the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, Qerbi, the foreign minister, had difficulties presenting evidence of Iran's involvement in his country's internal affairs and made due with references to political statements that were made in Tehran.
"The struggle against Al-Qaida is a matter for international cooperation," said Qerbi, and with that distanced his own country from responsibility for fighting the organization. "The other disputes are domestic matters and we will not let any foreign mediator intervene in them."
However, within Yemen too, there is no one who can mediate disputes. This is the main problem that the Americans face in their fight against Al-Qaida in Yemen. They are concerned that the aid they would provide President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government to fight terror will be used to bribe his supporters or to solve other disputes. The Americans therefore limit themselves to military training and to passing on intelligence on Al-Qaida concentrations.
According to reports from Yemen, the Americans operate the drones that track down the Al-Qaida concentrations. Quite a few civilians, and not just Al-Qaida militants, were killed in recent attacks on those concentrations. Just as happened in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Yemen too those attacks caused resentment against both the Americans and the local government, and thus played into the hands of Al-Qaida and the tribesmen who support it.
Yemen is neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but it could definitely become a base state for Al-Qaida's men. The arms market there is out of control and free, it is easy to go from there to neighboring countries or further abroad, and the public's support, at least in part of the south, is guaranteed for the time being. The question is whether the United States will manage to win over the Yemeni tribes so that they will fight Al-Qaida, or end up mired in another complicated military campaign.