Yemen’s Saleh Granted Pass for Suspected Crimes

The process took weeks to debate and finalize but the Yemeni parliament has finally approved the Gulf Cooperation Council’s peace accord. The organization of Arab Gulf states tabled the plan last April in an attempt to slide President Ali Abdullah Saleh from his post after 33 years as the country’s top man.

In return for stepping down, Saleh has been granted a total reprieve for crimes that he allegedly perpetrated during his three decades in power, including crimes that were committed during the past eleven months of bloodshed against Yemeni demonstrators.

The accord, when first proposed by the GCC, was highly controversial. Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights commissioner, denounced the plan as a breach of international humanitarian law due to its immunity clause. Human Rights Watch issued a scathing critique of the agreement as “a license to kill” more protesters.  Read more “Yemen’s Saleh Granted Pass for Suspected Crimes”

What Made Yemen’s Saleh Quit?

The man who once described ruling Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes” has been bitten by the wrath of his own people.

Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to transfer power to his vice president on Wednesday in exchange for an immunity arrangement that will save himself and his family from facing trial for the killing of Yemeni protesters.

The veteran Yemeni president had promised to relinquish power several times before this year only to backpedal from agreements at the last minute. Read more “What Made Yemen’s Saleh Quit?”

Radical Imam’s Death a Boost for Yemeni President

Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni American cleric that the United States have been trying to kill for the past year, finally met his maker on Friday.

American drones hovering in Yemeni airspace spotted the radical imam in a remote area in the north of the country, considered the tribal heartland of Yemen. Awlaki had just finished breakfast and was headed for his vehicle when the unmanned aircraft fired their their missiles, first at the car of Awlaki’s companions, then at Awlaki himself. The missiles incinerated the two vehicles and left Awlaki in scattered pieces until his hosts gathered his burned remains and buried him deep underground.

Besides Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawhiri, Anwar al-Awlaki has been one of those senior Al Qaeda figures that Washington has hoped to get its hands on for years. His name rapidly elevated in importance after investigators learned that the young Nigerian who attempted to blow up an airplane with explosives sewn in his underwear was encouraged and directed by Awlaki to hit the plane with full force.

The American intelligence community has been trying to kill him ever since and came extremely close to doing so this past May when an earlier drone attack targeted a convoy of vehicles that Awlaki was believed to be riding in. The Yemeni American escaped that strike unscathed, providing the United States with an even greater incentive to find him and finish the job.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (APAP), a franchise group that the Obama Administration has called the most lethal and dangerous terrorist threat to the American homeland, has not had many bad days. Friday was the exception. Not only was Awlaki killed; his associate and chief propagandist, Samir Khan, another American, was neutralized in the same attack as well.

Khan is better known as the editor of AQAP’s online magazine, Inspire, which releases articles about its martyrs and lengthy statements urging Muslims in the West to go after their host countries.

In a single day, AQAP lost two of its more charismatic figures. But the organization is still up and running and will likely continue to run until the Yemeni political crisis is resolved and the Yemeni government extends its authority throughout its tribal frontier.

For President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Awlaki’s demise could not have come at a better time. Saleh has been battling his own citizens in Yemen’s major cities for eight months. His family, which controls the country’s security services, is besieged by tribal fighters supportive of the opposition (the Ahmar family) and former soldiers of his own military (General Ali Mohsen).

The United States, the president’s biggest military benefactor, have distanced themselves from Saleh’s regime as the protests grew larger and bloodier with so sign of any political opening. It was only a few months ago that the Yemeni president was burned and severely wounded by an assassination attempt at his palace. The perpetuators are still unknown.

The latest counterterrorism success against AQAP may be the most significant yet for Saleh, potentially consolidating his domestic position in relation to his armed rivals. In any event, it will strengthen Saleh’s argument that he is the only man capable of stopping an Al Qaeda takeover of the entire country — a claim still ludicrous to millions of Yemeni protesters but buzzing louder in the corridors of power in Washington.

There is no clear indication as to whether the United States will now give Saleh and his regime a pass on stepping down from power and living a life of leisure in a third country, which would kill any chances of improving America’s image with the Yemeni population. The Yemeni intelligence service is rumored to have been a key interlocutor and partner during the Awlaki operation — a rumor that if substantiated, could give American officials pause in their call for the Yemeni president to quit.

Yemen’s Saleh Wants to Come Back Home

It has been a little over two months since Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh was nearly killed. On June 3, shelling from tribal forces in residential neighborhods of the capital Sana’a hit the presidential palace’s mosque just as he and a number of government allies were praying there. The mortar attack killed a few of Saleh’s elite Republican Guard troops, injured several of the highest officials in his ruling National Congress Party, including the prime minister, and came close to ending Saleh’s own life. His face was burned and shrapnel was lodged close to his heart, enough to have him whisked off to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Read more “Yemen’s Saleh Wants to Come Back Home”

Saleh’s Injury, a Wake-Up Call for the West

What was a Yemeni replica of the peaceful demonstrations that had been occurring throughout the Middle East this year turned into a deadly internal conflict last month that is edging closer to an all out civil war.

The crossover occurred two weeks ago when Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, rejected for the third time a peace proposal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council that would have rewarded him with immunity for stepping down. The country’s most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid (which Saleh’s own tribe is a part of) finally decided that enough is enough. With the blessing of the tribe’s leaders, also Yemen’s wealthiest businessmen, Hashid fighters have begun attacking Saleh’s government with live ammunition.

The battles between Saleh’s security forces and Hashid insurgents have plunged the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, into a state of desperation. Over two hundred people have been killed over the last week of fighting alone with both sides registering casualties. Hundreds of Yemeni families are gathering up their belongings and heading out of the capital city toward towns in the periphery which are experiencing problems of their own.

In a bid to consolidate his authority and eliminate his strongest political rivals, Saleh’s military rained mortars and rockets onto the Hashid leadership compound. None of them were killed though the attack highlighted the steps that Saleh was willing to take to kill his opponents and silence dissent.

The military operation only worsened the situation however. Rather than cow down, tribal fighters approved a retaliatory strike by shelling the president’s palace residence in the heart of the city. Saleh, his prime minister and the speaker of the Yemeni parliament were all injured in the attack. Seven guardsmen were killed and the violence got so out of hand that the White House and American State Department released a statement calling for all sides in the conflict to stand down and implement another ceasefire.

Luckily for the United States, Saleh was not killed in the shelling. For if he was, the administration would have been forced to recraft its Yemen policy virtually overnight.

Washington may be distancing itself from its onetime ally and asking the president to lead a peaceful transition but the death of Saleh would have been a catastrophic blow to the American position. Counterterrorism is America’s top priority in Yemen even if the safety, security and prosperity of the Yemeni people happen to concern the United States as well. Economic reconstruction and the development of strong and resilient governing institutions in Yemen is one way President Barack Obama has attempted to stem the pool of terrorist recruits in the bud. Unfortunately, that strategy has hinged on the hope that Saleh would act responsibly and use his power to bring about political reforms. In the record of the past four months, indeed of the past decade, it is evident that improving the lives of Yemeni citizens is not on Saleh’s “to do list.” Any foreign assistance that is diverted away from the military would strain the patronage network that Saleh has depended on for the past three decades.

The problem for American policy in Yemen is its lack of depth and clarity. Fighting terrorism and preventing extremism from proliferating in Yemen has been the central focus for the past ten years. Supporting Saleh to the hilt, even as the 65 year-old president detained human rights activists and terrorized religious minorities, was a far easier way for the United States to bring this about rather than addressing Yemen’s root insecurities. Building schools, fostering political participation, diversifying Yemen’s economy and redesigning its political structure would take years, if not decades, to achieve. Training Saleh’s army and hoping that they would take the fight to Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is a quicker way of frustrating the terrorists’ plans.

Yemen policy since 9/11 has been to promote a short-term fix to a terrorist threat that has longevity. Indeed in Yemen, extremism is generational, with former Arab resistance fighters telling their children stories about the 1980s Afghan jihad. Their lessons are passed on to grandchildren, creating another wave of recruits for the radical Islamist cause.

Saleh is, or was, an integral part of America’s fix against terrorism in Yemen. Yet his history of combating jihadists is spotty at best. During the 1994 Yemeni civil war, Saleh’s regime enlisted Salafi extremists to fight southern secessionists, to deadly effect. The Yemeni leader has also been known to hype the Al Qaeda threat in the hopes of extracting more money from the United States and the international community.

Saleh’s near-death experience should serve as a warning to American officials. It is time to look to the future. Sooner rather than later, Saleh will be gone and Yemen’s various power centers will begin competing among themselves for a spot in the new government. That new leadership may or may not have the gumption to thoroughly pluck away at Yemen’s multiple problems. Even if there is dedication, Yemen’s fumbling economy assures that these new leaders won’t have the resources to do the job effectively.

Washington has money but not the dedication. Dedication will only come if a new strategy for Yemen is devised, one that is geared toward helping the Yemeni people rather than aiding the Yemeni regime. A post-Saleh Yemen could be a fresh start for both.

Yemen’s Saleh Following in Mubarak’s Footsteps

If you thought Ali Abdullah Saleh was on the ropes when he had just the Yemeni demonstrators to deal with, think again. The United States, Saleh’s most important financial and military donor outside of Saudi Arabia, are now edging ever closer to the opposition. And if rumors are correct, Obama Administration officials are in modest talks with the Yemeni government and the political opposition to ease Saleh out of power, for good.

Although Yemen is distinct from other Arab states (tribes are vastly more important than the central government and the state is riddled with weapons), one cannot help but compare this latest shift in American policy to the hasty response during the Egyptian protests two months ago. Read more “Yemen’s Saleh Following in Mubarak’s Footsteps”

Forestalling Another Civil War in Yemen

With the world rightly focused on the international airstrikes over Libya (that campaign, at least tactically, is promising in the early stages), Yemen is inching ever closer to a full-blown civil war.

The civil war scenario sounds dramatic but in a country as poor, illiterate, and tribal as Yemen is — and with most Yemeni civilians carrying firearms themselves — the prospect of such a conflict is not altogether implausible.

Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a staunch American ally against the Al Qaeda offshoot in his country, has been pressured on all fronts over the past month to relinquish power after 32 years. Up until this past Friday, the protests were more of a sideshow for Saleh than an actual threat — the president and his family, mastered in the tactics of consolidating authority, have dealt with demonstrations before, to no avail. But the show has now collapsed and quickly transformed into the very threat that Saleh hoped would never materialize. And the instigators of that transformation were none other than his own security forces and loyalists, who shot and killed 52 demonstrators in cold blood on a single day.

Since that incident, Saleh’s government has virtually collapsed amid a significant amount of defections and resignations.

On Sunday, Saleh fired his presidential cabinet in a bid to shake up the power structure and get new blood into his palace. The top general of Yemen’s armed forces, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, relinquished his post and threw his support behind the protest movement a day later. Over half of Yemen’s foreign diplomatic core, including the Yemeni ambassadors to the Arab League and the United Nations, have followed suit, demanding that Saleh step down before further blood is shed.

Perhaps the most significant, at least symbolically, of the resignations came when the leader of the Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, decided to cast his lot with the opposition. Saleh is a member of the Hashid tribe, so losing support from within his traditional base is not necessarily positive for his future.

Where does this leave Yemen now? The easy answer is that it is too soon to tell. Saleh still retains the allegiance of his son Ahmed, who commands the most professional and capable of Yemen’s security forces, and all of his nephews, who hold positions of authority.

The Republican Guard, under the command of Ahmed Saleh, stands outside the presidential palace in a clear and overt exhibit of support for his father. On the other side of the street, General Ahmar and his battalions are standing with the opposition, ready to protect Yemeni civilians if necessary. Indeed, there have already been reports of violence between the two, with one dead and three more injured.

Once again, America finds itself enclosed in a tight box. Saleh, despite all of his excesses and abuses, has been Washington’s central ally against terrorism. Yemen is home to the most active Al Qaeda franchise in the world, with an English-speaking cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki taking over Osama bin Laden’s place as the organizations most public and charismatic figure. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Saleh’s security services in the hopes of taking the fight to the enemy. American drones have been partnering with the Yemeni government over the last year, flying reconnaissance missions and bombing terrorist hideouts when necessary.

In short, the United States are heavily invested in the continuation of Saleh’s rule. But with protests strengthening in the capital and across the country, that investment is now looking like an exceedingly poor one.

So while the United States should continue to stay on the sidelines as the Yemeni people demand their legitimate political rights, they should also make sure that the violence is kept to a minimum. Another fifty people killed by Yemen’s security forces or by the opposition is a sure receipt for long-term disaster — a disaster that the region certainly doesn’t need right now.

Luckily, Washington has contacts on both sides of the divide, with Saleh representing the government and General Ahmar representing the opposition. Both men have been heavily involved in Yemen’s counterterrorism effort against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and both have profited from America’s (and the international community’s) bank account.

Using these relationships, however difficult, could be a promising way to avoid the possibility of further conflict. Stalling a civil war must be the world’s primary objective in Yemen, above that of killing Awlaki and any other short-term objectives. A Yemen in chaos does nothing to help the fight against terrorism, nor does it create an environment conductive to the one thing that millions of Yemenis have been working toward — democracy.