Yemen: the war on terror and a deadly game of cat and mouse
Published 15/11/2010 | 10:11
Tribal customs and a deadly ambivalence towards the West mean that the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki will be long and frustrating.
Sheikh Ahmed Shuraif certainly has the tools for the job the Americans and British want him to do. Kalashnikov rifles litter the floor of the spacious lounge where he and his men gather in the afternoon to chew qat, Yemenis' favourite narcotic leaf. And this is just his town house in Yemen's capital, Sana'a. Out in the province of Marib, where he commands one of Yemen's most important tribes, he is reputed to have the country's largest private army, including tanks.
Since Marib is one of the main homes of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Sheikh Ahmed should be a useful ally in the war on terror, his men the very people the West hopes will turn on the terrorists in their midst. Unfortunately, he says, it is not as simple as that. "In our religion we are against what al-Qaeda does," he says, smiling gently and thoughtfully from his couch in the middle of the room. "What they are doing is very bad. It's not in Islam at all."
His sons, one a provincial deputy governor, and some of his followers line the cushions set against the walls around him, nodding and hanging on his every word. "But who is al-Qaeda, and who is not? Even they don't know themselves sometimes. How can we tell? In our tribal custom, if someone comes among us we have to protect them. If we discover later they are al-Qaeda, we cannot turn them in. We would no longer accept him, but we would not give him to the government."
The hunt for al-Qaeda in Yemen, and its spiritual mentor, Anwar al-Awlaki, has become the latest spectator sport of a security-obsessed world. If the battle raging in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a bloody teenage computer game, with militants taking on western infantry with mines, and being struck in turn by drone-fired missiles, the war in Yemen is more cerebral.
Scientifically minded al-Qaeda recruits invent devilish ways of smuggling bombs out of the hills and into the homes of their enemies – odourless explosives in Fedex packages, youthful assassins with bombs hidden in their private parts. Those taking them on have to plan equally cleverly. The war is as much psychological as physical. Al-Qaeda's new strategy is to set the West on edge rather than destroy manifestations of its power, as in 9/11. It wants to undermine our self-confidence and credibility with its potential recruits.
Aerial attacks by drones, as in Afghanistan, along with the inevitable "collateral damage", could play into al-Qaeda's hands. The government has put Awlaki on trial in absentia since al-Qaeda sent two parcel bombs two weeks ago via courier to America, which were intercepted in Dubai and England before they could explode. It has also launched raids with the overt purpose of seizing or killing al-Qaeda's local leader, Nasser al-Nuhayshi, and his number two, the former Guantanamo inmate Said al-Shehri, without success.
But co-operation with the West, long-term development, education – these are the new watchwords, and they require local bosses like Sheikh Ahmed to put them into effect. The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has compared ruling his country to dancing on the heads of snakes. Many "snakes", in Mr Saleh's view, are tribal leaders like Sheikh Ahmed, who must be constantly placated if they are to cooperate.
In the areas known to shelter al-Qaeda – primarily the central provinces of Marib, al-Jawf, Abyan and Awlaki's homeland, Shabwa, men like Sheikh Ahmed hold sway. Despite occasional army forays, al-Qaeda seems to operate reasonably freely – oil workers stationed in Shabwa report seeing even Awlaki regularly driving around the countryside.
How much Mr Saleh can do to recruit the sheikhs to the cause of chasing the West's enemies is the big question. "He can't control the whole country, but he can put a squeeze on any sheikh he wants to," claims one senior western official. "If he wanted to make it not worth their while to shelter al-Qaeda he could."
If that is true, the ambivalence of men like Sheikh Ahmed is an unwelcome sign of how much needs to be done. And the sheikh claims genuine efforts have not even started. "There's no discussion with the government – nothing," he said. "They have offered nothing to us."
In al-Jawf, one of the sheikhs negotiating with al-Qaeda on behalf of the government was yet more unnerving. Sheikh Abdullah al-Jamili made no bones that his main concern was to exact compensation for one of his men killed in a shoot-out with al-Qaeda three months ago, rather than imposing a new national security regime. He claimed to meet al-Qaeda leaders regularly, including Awlaki "a few days ago". Confrontation was not on his mind, he suggested. "If you want to meet anyone from al-Qaeda, you should come to al-Jawf," he says, disarmingly. "I'm carrying words between al-Qaeda and the government – I'm trying to make peace between them."
What Sheikh Abdullah means by this cryptic comment he refuses to say over the telephone and The Daily Telegraph declined his offer, which would have been prevented by the government in any case, of going to find out. But peace between the government and al-Qaeda has a particular resonance in Yemen, where, as Sheikh Ahmed pointed out, the government had Awlaki in prison three years ago and then let him out.
It is no secret that al-Qaeda is in part an accidental creation of the West – formed from volunteers who served with the American- and Saudi-backed mujahideen against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. While these former allies turned against each other in the Nineties, in Yemen the situation remains far less clear.
Today's generation of jihadis is largely composed of disaffected, fundamentalist locals with an added backbone of former Saudi inmates of Guantanamo Bay, but they owe their organisational existence to an older generation who served Osama bin Laden personally in Afghanistan. Many of those were recruited by Brigadier-General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, Mr Saleh's powerful head of security, and he and his apparatus have found it hard to turn their backs on them. They played a vital role in the civil war which followed the reunification of north and south Yemen in 1990. After al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000, the chief planner was seen walking the streets of Sana'a with the deputy head of the internal security service as a manhunt for him was under way.
Even today, Mr Saleh's government and his judiciary seem to veer between support for engagement, particularly economically, with the West, and radical Islam. Mr Saleh has supported clerics who feature on the United States's list of globally designated terrorists, while his judges have refused to convict militants for terrorist acts committed abroad. His parliament, roughly democratic, recently refused to pass legislation setting a minimum marriage age for girls.
Mr Saleh, and his general, are now assumed to be fully on-board – government officials have been targeted and murdered in recent years. But the assumption is not whole-hearted. "Hitherto he hasn't seen al-Qaeda as threatening his survival," the western official says. "He may even see al-Qaeda as a useful way of getting the world's attention and more resources. But that would be a mistake. He cannot placate al-Qaeda."
The most strategically significant result of the attempt by the al-Qaeda-backed "underpants bomber" to bring down a plane over Detroit last Christmas was the formation by a number of governments, led by Britain, of the "Friends of Yemen". The group is friendly in the sense that it promises much-needed development aid. Yemen's neighbours are only too well aware of the recruitment possibilities for radicalism provided by a population of which 35pc are unemployed and 60pc are under 25 – particularly one surrounded by so much oil wealth. Yemen's own limited oil supplies, which until recently provided three-quarters of government revenue, are dwindling fast, with production last year falling by almost half.
But the group is friendly in the way a police interrogator is friendly, bearing the implicit threat of exclusion from the outside world – or worse – if Yemen does not put its house in order. That threat is already partly being made good, with bans on air travel, visa approval and freight imposed by several countries since the parcel bombs. This enrages government supporters like Faris al-Sanabani, publisher of the Yemen Observer newspaper. "It's like a collective punishment," he said. "The bridges that are being cut are very important – sons following fathers in studying abroad have a positive impact on the country."
Mr Saleh has been in power for 30 years, and most diplomats and aid workers, to say nothing of the locals, agree that Yemen has not, of late, flourished under his rule. They also accept there is no real alternative. That makes his ability to force his will on his fractious country key to our fight with al-Qaeda. "Foreign interference makes things worse – history shows that," said Mr Sanabani. "It should be left to Yemenis to confront al-Qaeda."
"Different countries are talking of sending their military to protect Yemen from al-Qaeda," said Sheikh Ahmed, who may dwell at length on his president's failures but agrees on this one point. "The country will never accept it."
But Washington already has its drones out in force, even if they are not armed – yet – and a decade of engagement has had limited results. If the next parcel bomb from Yemen actually explodes, both Sheikh Ahmed and Mr Sanabani may find that is a risk America is prepared to take.