Yemen's internal divide complicates U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda, analysts say
Friday, January 8, 2010
ADEN, YEMEN -- A hatred of the government in southern Yemen is complicating U.S.-backed efforts to stem al-Qaeda's ambitions across the region, according to Western and Yemeni officials, analysts and human rights activists.
The concerns highlight the extent to which the United States, as it deepens its military engagement here, is teaming up with a government facing internal divisions that in some ways are more complex than those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a speech Thursday, President Obama said the United States has worked closely with its partners, including Yemen, "to inflict major blows" against al-Qaeda. But experts familiar with the group here say it is poised to exploit the country's divide to attract recruits and more sympathy from the south's powerful tribes.
"Al-Qaeda dreams of secession," said Najib Ghallab, a political science professor at Sanaa University. "It wants to turn the south into the perfect breeding ground for global terrorism."
Once two countries, Yemen unified in 1990. But a brief civil war broke out in 1994. From the north, President Ali Abdullah Saleh dispatched thousands of Yemeni mujaheddin who had fought in Afghanistan as well as Salafists, who follow a strict interpretation of Islam, to fight the southerners.
Ever since, tension has gripped this vast region. The government's resources are stretched thin here, as it also grapples with a Shiite rebellion in the north.
Southerners contend that the government has denied them their share of oil revenue, and has dismissed many southerners from military and government jobs. A wave of protests has roiled the south, prompting a government crackdown. Many members of the Southern Movement, a loosely knit coalition, now demand secession.
"We no longer want our rights from the government. We want a separate north and south," said Ahmed Kassim, a secessionist leader who spoke in a hushed tone inside a car on a recent day in this southern port city.
In May, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate alleged to have masterminded the attempted bombing of an American jet on Christmas Day, declared its support for the southerners' demands for a separate state. The group's leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, promised to avenge the "oppression" faced by southerners.
Al-Qaeda's bonds in south
Southern Yemen, nestled at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, edges the strategic Bab el-Mandab strait, one of the world's oil shipping choke points. It is also a gateway to Somalia, where the Islamist militant movement al-Shabab, which has ties to al-Qaeda, is fighting the U.S.-backed Somali transitional government.
Al-Qaeda militants have thrived in Yemen's southern and southeastern provinces. They are shielded by tribal alliances and codes in religiously conservative communities that do not tolerate outside interference, even from the government. A shared dislike of central authority and U.S. policies in the Middle East has strengthened al-Qaeda's bonds with southern tribesmen.
The resentment persists here in Aden, where al-Qaeda militants bombed the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors.