October 16, 2009. Overlooking the central highlands of Yemen. The densely populated mountains of Yemen’s Sarawat range reach over 3,000 metres.
Yemen is not the most peaceful corner of the Arab world. Situated at the southernmost tip of the Middle East, just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, it is the region’s poorest country. Yemen is also one of the more heavily armed Arab nations: it is estimated that there are more than 60 million guns in a country with a population of 25 million. That’s two and a bit guns per person, in case you can’t do the maths.
The country’s only constant is civil war. Despite supposed unification in 1990, Yemen remains divided between the traditionalist north and the separatist south. But even by its own warring standards, things have been going bananas since 2004.
Yemen’s local squabbles, both separatist and sectarian, have, in fact, got so bad that they are threatening to destabilise the entire region. Everyone from Saudi Arabia to Iran, Egypt and Jordan have got involved and started lining up to back sides.
An ongoing conflict in the north of the country between Sunni Yemeni forces and Shiite Houthi insurgents has been bolstered by an independence movement in the south, led by rebel Yemen army militias disillusioned by the northern-based government. Among the leaders of the southern separatists is one Tariq al-Fadhli.
December 14, 2009. Yemeni soldiers chew qat, a mildly narcotic leaf, while on patrol in Wadi Doan in eastern Yemen.
A veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad who fought alongside Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, al-Fadhli and his supporters have been accused of wanting to establish a separatist, extremist Islamic state in southern Yemen. Since allied clampdowns in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it has long been suspected that southern Yemen is a key training centre for Islamic militants.
That belief was confirmed on Christmas Day last year when it was revealed that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who attempted to bring down a Northwest Airlines Airbus A330 over Detroit, received both his weapon and training from al-Qaeda cells operating in Yemen.
Publicly claiming responsibility for the attack, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) asserted that it had been prompted by US air attacks on supposed militant targets in the region. This led to an escalation of Western-masterminded attacks and AQAP retaliation, which culminated in the suicide attack on the British ambassador to Yemen in late April.
While the world’s media continues to train its sights on Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has silently opened up a third theatre in a war on terror that looks about as likely to end as their old favourite, the war on drugs. We spoke to the Yemen analyst and journalist Brian O’Neill to find out what’s up in a country overrun with guns, no natural resources, and escalating wars, both civil and international. Brian is the former editor of the
, so it’s safe to say he knows more about the place than most.
October 16, 2009. Villagers involved in a tribal dispute with a neighbouring village in Yemen’s central highlands show off their weapons.
Vice: How did you become so interested in Yemen? It’s not exactly a country that often features on A Place in the Sun.
I have always been interested in the Middle East. I studied in Cairo, and even in the Arab world and the world of Arab scholars, Yemen was always this exotic backwater, a strange land. As a younger person, that appealed to my sense of exotic adventurism. As I studied it more and looked at its political, demographic and economic trends and its history, I began to realise that this country was going to become really important really soon. Its systems were falling apart, its institutions didn’t really hold and there was a growing threat of al-Qaeda. It seemed clear that this country was not going to stay anonymous for long.
The coverage of Yemen in mainstream media seems quick to condemn the place as going to hell in a handcart. Can it really be that bad?
In some ways, and this might be because I am a contrary bastard, I tend to think people are underplaying the story. Almost every economic, climatic and demographic problem that a country can face, Yemen is facing. Fifty percent of the population are under the age of 15, so there will be a generation of young men growing up without jobs or opportunities. I think the story that is most important, however, and one that the media is not concentrating on, is the impending water shortage. By 2020, the capital could well be out of water and within the next decade we could have millions of people without water.
How did this water crisis come about? We’re guessing it wasn’t a case of too many people leaving the sprinkler on.
There are a lot of natural factors, but the main cause is that in the 60s and 70s the UN got involved in the way that Yemen collected its water. Those methods mainly consisted of collecting rainwater and storing it. The UN said, “Don’t do that, it’s not going to work”—even though it had worked for thousands of years—and instead encouraged them to tap into the underground water tables. This quickly became a matter of whoever was richest digging the deepest and draining water for their own use. The inherent corruption in Yemen, combined with the good but ultimately misplaced intentions of improving water collection by the UN, has drained the water tables much faster than anyone could have imagined.
Aside from a potential complete lack of water, what are the other major issues being overlooked by the media?
The rebellion in the south, for a start. Obviously the Christmas bomber got everyone focused on al-Qaeda, and they are extremely important globally, but they are not massively important in terms of Yemen itself. There are two domestic rebellions going on: one in the north and one in the south. The one in the north got more attention initially because when the world started looking at Yemen in the wake of the bombing attempt, there was still open fighting going on, which is exciting for the media. In that war, the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, dubbed his last battle “Operation Scorched Earth”, which was exactly what it sounded like. There was carpet bombing, villages being razed and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
October 9, 2009. A boy waits in line for food at the Mazraq refugee camp in Hajjah province, Yemen. The displaced persons at Mazraq camp have fled fighting between rebels, known as Houthis, and the government in the Sa’ada province of northern Yemen.
That doesn’t sound good. How about in the south?
The southern issue was more political than anything. Yemen used to be two separate countries until 1990: North Yemen and South Yemen. The north had been a democratic state and the south a Marxist state. The two unified in 1990 because they were both broke. There was a lot of tension, and there was a civil war between the north and south in 1994, which the south lost. President Saleh used a lot of jihadis in that war who had just returned from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and after they won he let the jihadis sort of take over and rule the south.
So it became a little jihadi colony?
Well, the people of the south were very much colonised and oppressed by their own countrymen. In 2007 there was a movement for more rights, but since then Saleh has cracked down again and it’s an open call for secession. It looks like they are lurching back towards civil war and that is the issue more than al-Qaeda. By focusing on al-Qaeda we ignore the broader and more dangerous issues in Yemen. Our overriding interest has to be to keep Yemen from falling apart. By focusing on al-Qaeda we could actually accelerate Yemen’s breaking up, and if the country breaks up it will become an incredible safe haven for al-Qaeda.
How deep has al-Qaeda sunk its tentacles into Yemen?
They are very involved in everyday Yemeni life, but certainly not in the central government and mainstream of Yemeni politics. In fact, they have pretty much declared open war on the central government. They have focused their efforts on infiltrating the tribal system on a local level by marrying into tribes and gaining local bases of support. Their numbers belie their strength. There are only 200 to 300 al-Qaeda in Yemen, but they are smart and patient and have been getting stronger over the past few years. It is interesting to contrast al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, al-Zarqawi’s group. Their goal was carnage, so it was inevitable that people in Iraq would turn against them, but al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has not really made any attacks in Yemen or on the Yemeni people. So, though people might not actively support them or agree with everything they say, at least they aren’t killing anyone. Unlike the government, who are.
What sort of poverty levels are we talking about in Yemen?
It’s Sub-Saharan-esque. In almost every poverty and developmental standard it is usually in the bottom five or ten countries in the world. There are not a lot of jobs. The economy is mostly based on oil, and that is running out.
January 16, 2010. A member of Yemen’s counterterrorism police force directs an exercise in the mountains outside the capital Sana’a. The special unit is trained by US and British Special Forces.
Everywhere seems to be running out of oil. Is Yemen’s case more pressing?
It’s more dire than most. They never had that much oil to begin with as they are stuck at the shit end of the peninsula. Most of the oil is concentrated in the south, so the political situation there makes it much harder for the central government to get any money from the oil. In Yemen, every issue ties into at least two or three other problems that make it harder to solve.
There are also problems with piracy, right?
Yes, and it’s getting worse. For a while it was concentrated off Yemen’s western coast, close to Somalia, but now we are seeing a lot more piracy around the south, near the port of Aden. I think what is interesting is that Yemen is so much closer to Somalia than it is to the Arab heartland. We tend to see things too simply. We connect Yemen with the Middle East, but culturally it is far closer to Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia. When you see similar paterns of piracy in Somalia and Yemen, it makes sense. Crime often follows the same links as culture.
What form of piracy is this? Is it the kidnapping and ransom type you hear a lot about in Somalia?
It’s mostly for ransom. But then you have a lot of smuggling routes that follow the same lines as the piracy routes. I think the smuggling of arms and drugs is more of a threat than actual ransom piracy. Yemen is a hub for international crime. It is geographically ideally suited to smuggling arms into war zones in the Horn of Africa and drugs up through Saudi Arabia. Plus it’s a major route for arms supply to terrorist groups.
Is there any meaningful effort being made by the West or international organisations to try to avert any of these impending disasters?
There have been a lot of conferences and there is the Facebook group-sounding “Friends of Yemen” who have meetings and talk about helping. We will see if that actually comes to anything but historically these talks don’t tend to.
If things were to continue as they currently are, how long do you give Yemen before it becomes a totally failed state?
I would say it could very easily happen within a year.
Would a total collapse make the country an even better base for al-Qaeda operations?
The huge fear is that the autonomous tribes now have connections with al-Qaeda and they can use their safe havens, without any government interference, to strike abroad. Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula needs space, but also some structure, and Yemen’s tribal havens can provide both. They have already shown themselves able to strike at the heart of Saudi Arabia, and the fear is that a Yemen that can no longer harass them would be a country where the Saudis, or even worse, the West, feels they need to intervene militarily. That would make Afghanistan look like a cakewalk.