1. US involvement strategy
U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.
The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.
As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said.
The far-reaching U.S. role could prove politically challenging for Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who must balance his desire for American support against the possibility of a backlash by tribal, political and religious groups whose members resent what they see as U.S. interference in Yemen.The collaboration with Yemen provides the starkest illustration to date of the Obama administration’s efforts to ramp up counterterrorism operations, including in areas outside the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, General David Petraeus, says there are indications the domestic conflict in Yemen could become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
General Petraeus was asked whether he sees the civil war between Yemen’s government and rebel Houthi forces in the north as a proxy war, with Iran supporting the rebels and Saudi Arabia helping the government. The general said it is not a proxy war now, but has the potential to become one, and there may already have been some movement in that direction.
2. London conference
Foreign ministers from the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and 20 other countries met in London at Gordon Brown’s invitation to back President Ali Abdullah Salih and pledge not to interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs. But they also issued a stark public warning of the dangers of inaction.
“The challenges in Yemen are growing and, if not addressed, risk threatening the stability of the country and broader region,” said a statement issued after two hours of talks at the Foreign Office. It called for “urgent and concrete action” by Yemen to address “conditions conducive to radicalisation and instability”.
Civil organizations in Yemen sent a letter to U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressing their fear that the Yemen government would exploit the conference and the international attention in order to settle accounts with its political rivals, in the guise of the fight against terrorism.
The London meeting promised to support Yemeni counter-terrorist capabilities, enhance aviation and border security, and strengthen coastguard operations. Yemen pledged in return to pursue reforms and initiate discussions with the IMF. An existing 10-point plan includes scrapping fuel subsidies and public sector jobs.
Only a broad approach that incorporates improving the economy, battling poverty, promoting stability and fighting terrorism will solve the underlying causes of Yemen’s many problems, the top United Nations political official told an international conference on the country. B. Lynn Pascoe, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, told the High-Level Meeting on Yemen, held in London, that the UN is ready to assist the impoverished Arab nation make progress on the humanitarian, developmental and economic fronts.
In his Friday sermon on January 15, the well-known Yemeni Islamist and U.S. designated terrorism supporter Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani called for jihad to defend Yemen in the event of a foreign military intervention. Al-Zindani noted that some American media reports said the “Yemeni regime is about to collapse and U.S. forces and Marines should intervene to protect oil sources in Yemen.” Al-Zindani considered such media reports (which he did not cite specifically) a declaration of war by the United States.
Al-Zindani’s remarks came a day before the shaykh and 149 other Yemeni clerics issued a fatwa in the name of the “Association of Scholars of the Yemen” declaring that jihad is “fard ayn” (a compulsory duty) in the event of military intervention in the country, and thus rejecting any military cooperation with Washington, the use of Yemeni territory for foreign military bases, and Yemen’s commitment to any security or military agreements that are contrary to Islamic Shari’a (Al-Bawaba, January 14; Asharq al-Awsat, January 14).
The entry of the clerics in Yemen to the growing crisis, regardless of whether they are linked to al-Qaeda or not, indicates the development of an environment that is sympathetic to the growing presence of al-Qaeda.
Yemen announced on Thursday 21 January that it would stop granting entry visas to travellers at the country’s international airports in order to halt terrorist infiltration.
Thousands of Somali boys and teenagers fleeing war and chaos at home are sailing to Yemen, where officials who have long welcomed Somali refugees now worry that the new arrivals could become the next generation of al-Qaeda fighters.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meanwhile, announced in London the suspension of direct flights from Yemen until further security measures are agreed.
4. Impact on civilians
Amnesty International warned that the government’s heavy-handed response to the threat posed by al-Qaida puts Yemen at risk of being locked in a downward spiral on human rights.
In its latest briefing paper on Yemen, Amnesty International highlights an increase in human rights violations against those who criticize or oppose the government.
“The government has resorted to increasingly repressive methods to counter this opposition, including waves of arrests, incommunicado detention and unlawful killings,” said Malcolm Smart.
“Counter-terrorism is no excuse to sideline human rights. Whilst the government has a duty to protect people and hold to account those engaged in terrorism it must abide by its obligations under international law.”
In Sa’da, in the north of the country, the long running conflict between government forces and the Huthis, armed fighters belonging to the Zaidi Shi’a minority, resumed with new intensity last August and has been marked by serious abuses on both sides.
Both sides are alleged to have killed civilians and according to the UN’s refugee agency, so far more than the 200,000 people have been forcibly displaced.Civilians have also been put at risk, and some possibly killed, by Saudi Arabian security forces that have carried out attacks against rebels in Yemen’s northern border region. These attacks lacked any safeguards for the protection of civilians.
Mr Stillhar, the ICRC’s deputy director of operations, spent two days in Sana’a meeting with government authorities, the heads of UN agencies and the leadership of the Yemeni Red Crescent and a further two days in the northern governorate of Amran, where he met a good number of the tribal leaders of the region.
“What I’ve seen is a serious humanitarian crisis in the making,” declared Mr Stillhart. Since August 2009, when the conflict resumed, which, Mr Stillhart pointed out, was actually the sixth round of conflict between the government and the rebels, at least 150,000 civilians have been directly affected, or about one person in five living in the area.
He emphasized that the majority of displaced people had found shelter with host families, primarily relatives, and that this is putting a growing strain on host communities that were already living on the edge before fighting broke out. From his assessment after his short visit, Mr Stillhart said that the needs of the people clearly exceed the capacity of the humanitarian response.
Mr Stillhart explained that, as most communities are suffering, at least indirectly from the conflict, they naturally all feel entitled to some sort of assistance and this makes the whole aid effort extremely complicated to organize.
Yemen’s government said Sunday it will accept a truce offer only if the rebels operating in the country’s north comply with six previously laid-out conditions. Government conditions include removal of rebel checkpoints, withdrawal of forces and clarification of the fate of kidnapped foreigners. The rebels must return captured military and civilian equipment and not enter local politics.
The Shiite Muslim rebels, known as the Houthis, had indicated Saturday that they were open to a cease-fire and to accepting the government conditions. But they demanded an end to military operations first.
6. Yemen CT measures
Although the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s president, released 130 of its fighters as a goodwill gesture, al-Qaeda’s leadership in Yemen rejected the deal, according to Tariq al-Fahdli, who has since joined an outlawed group fighting for the secession of the south.
Yemeni security forces killed a man suspected of leading a cell of Al Qaeda and captured four other militants on Wednesday 13 January morning, hours after two soldiers were killed by Qaeda members in a neighboring district, Yemeni officials said. The clashes were the latest episode in the Yemeni government’s heightened campaign against Al Qaeda’s Arabian branch.
A Yemeni court sentenced seven suspected Al-Qaeda members to between five and 10 years in jail after convicting them of plotting to attack foreign interests and tourists.
The seven went on trial in October after having been arrested while preparing explosives and monitoring tourist buses to attack them, according to police.
They were convicted of “plotting to form an armed gang to execute criminal acts targeting foreign tourists and interests and government installments,” according to the verdict.
7. Halt of Guantanamo transfers
US President Barack Obama, who last year set January 22, 2010, as the date to close the detention camp in southeast Cuba, declared on Tuesday he had suspended transfers of freed Guantanamo Bay inmates to Yemen following the botched Christmas Day airliner attack.
Thirty Yemeni detainees the US government had deemed ready for release, some of whom are entering their ninth year there without charge, are now being told to wait even longer to return home.
Earlier this month, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the detention of Yemeni Guantanamo detainee Ghaleb Nassar Al-Bihani, ruling that he can remain in US custody, but, last month, the US government transferred six detainees back to Yemen. Also last month, a federal judge granted Yemeni detainee Saeed Hatim’s petition for habeas corpus, ordering his release.
There are 91 Yemeni detainees left in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yemen will begin building an $11 million rehabilitation center for returning Guantanamo detainees in three months when it expects to receive funding from the United States.