Yemen's internal divide complicates U.S. efforts against al-Qaeda, analysts say

By Sudarsan Raghavan
washington post foreign service
Friday, January 8, 2010; A01

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.

Inside the dented white car, Kassim sat with another secessionist leader, Nasser Atawil. Now and then, they looked nervously out the window, concerned that Yemeni intelligence agents might overhear their conversation with a journalist.

They complained that the names of streets had been changed to northern ones. They said northerners had taken buildings, farms and land from southerners. Northerners, they contended, gain entry into better universities and had better careers.

Atawil, a retired army general, said his pension was half what his northern counterparts receive.

"What the government is doing will make al-Qaeda stronger here," he said.

In another corner of Aden, the managing editor of Al Ayyam, the largest and most influential daily in the south, said the government has banned his paper for sympathizing with the Southern Movement's cause.

"We are virtually under house arrest," Hani Bashraheel said. On Monday, journalists staged a sit-in to protest the shutdown. But clashes erupted between police and the paper's armed guards; a policeman and a guard were killed. On Wednesday, police arrested Hani and his father, Hisham Bashraheel, the paper's editor.

According to Human Rights Watch, Yemeni forces opened fire on unarmed protesters six times in 2008 and 2009, killing at least 11 and wounding dozens.

On Thursday, a senior Yemeni official denied the government was using excessive force and instead said some secessionists have targeted government forces.

"They claim they are a movement, but they are outlaws," said Rashad al-Alimi, deputy prime minister for security and defense.

Escalating tensions

With the ongoing government repression, concern is growing that violence could increase -- especially as the U.S.-backed war on al-Qaeda unfolds in the south.

Since July, there have been more reports of protesters bringing weapons to rallies, according to Human Rights Watch. In November, al-Qaeda militants killed three senior security officials and four escorts in the southern province of Hadhramaut.

The recent alliance between a powerful tribal leader and former jihadist, Tariq al-Fadhli, and the Southern Movement also has escalated tensions. Fadhli, who is from the south, fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Then Saleh sent him to fight against the former Marxist forces in the south during the civil war.

But in April, Fadhli broke ties with Saleh, injecting new momentum into the Southern Movement. Since then, protests against the government have intensified.

The government has accused Fadhli and the Southern Movement of colluding with al-Qaeda. They have denied this and accuse Saleh of using the specter of al-Qaeda to elicit support from the United States and its Middle East allies.

Still, some rights activists say an alliance is forming between some secessionists, Fadhli and al-Qaeda. Christoph Wilcke, a Human Rights Watch researcher for Yemen, said at least one al-Qaeda leader had joined Fadhli and the Southern Movement. He was killed in a U.S.-backed Yemeni airstrike last month, Wilcke said.

Any melding of the Southern Movement and al-Qaeda is far from established, he said. But that could change if the U.S.-backed war deepens without Washington pressuring Saleh to stop repression in the south. Angry southerners, meanwhile, have accused the government and the United States of killing a few dozen civilians in an airstrike last month. Yemeni officials say they killed militants and their relatives.

"It will change the sympathies if they have a common enemy in the United States," Wilcke said. "Al-Qaeda will become more of an ally. This is exactly what we don't want to get into."

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