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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

Poverty-Ravaged Yemen No Stranger to Terrorist Elements

Crime: People openly carry automatic weapons in the capital, and Muslim extremists have found a welcome home.

October 16, 2000|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADEN, Yemen — The suspected suicide bombing of an American destroyer anchored in the Port of Aden has focused world attention on this rugged land where each man carries an average of three weapons and Muslim extremists have found a welcome home.

Yemen has figured prominently on the world's roster of terrorist nations for years. The 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were carried out by a group that included a Yemeni man. Militants in Jordan plotting attacks on Jewish and American targets during millennium celebrations had Yemeni contacts. The Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, perhaps the world's most notorious Islamic militant, had a Yemeni father and has former associates working on the Yemeni president's council of advisors.

Like many extremists in the region, most of the militant Yemenis fought against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They are now called Afghan Arabs, and many enjoy high-ranking positions in the Yemeni military.

Before present-day Yemen came into being in 1990 with the union of its northern and southern regions, northern leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, now the nation's president, used these skilled and highly motivated fighters against the Marxist government based in Aden. They helped defeat the south in a 1979 conflict that killed 10,000 Yemenis. And in 1994, when the secular, socialist south rebelled, Saleh threw in his Afghan Arabs again to help defeat it, analysts say.

Western diplomats say that Saleh does not actively encourage extremists and that when he smells terrorism he does not hesitate to root it out. But Yemen, a desperately poor country that gave the world frankincense, myrrh and the Queen of Sheba, is about one-third larger than California. It has hundreds of miles of unguarded coastline and an interior where tribal customs survive and there is little outside control.

According to Jane's Intelligence Review, Yemen has 16.4 million people with an annual per capita income of $2,300. In fact, though, most Yemenis take home only about a dollar a day. And a third of that income, the review says, is spent on qat, a mildly narcotic leaf that Yemenis stuff into their cheeks to while away the afternoons.

In the capital, Sana, in the north, people openly carry automatic weapons, and the region is a virtual arms bazaar, with rockets, grenades and other weapons for sale. Southerners, meanwhile, are less socially conservative and more apt to have a beer than a shootout with a tribal rival.

"The terrorists have been in Yemen for a long time," said Yassin Ahmed Saleh, a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party and head of the Aden Studies and Democracy Center. "The northerners have used them against us for a long time, and they have become more powerful and influential everywhere. Many were rewarded with high ranks. No one can tell them anything. They can go where they want and be used by others for whatever they want."

Yassin Ahmed Saleh said some of the Afghan Arabs in the nation's northern-dominated military are formed into their own units and have used military force against civilians who get in their way.

"We have one flag, but the country is still divided in our hearts," he said.

"One cannot correctly say that Yemen is a terrorist country," said Sheik Tariq Abdullah, a lawyer and columnist often critical of the government, in commenting about last week's explosion that damaged the guided missile destroyer Cole. "If this is a terrorist act, it could only have been done through a foreign element who organized it through Yemenis. It would have been impossible for Yemenis to do this on their own."

Abdullah said Ali Abdullah Saleh feels a loyalty to people who have helped him unite the country after so much bloodshed--though southerners still harbor intense bitterness toward the north, which they view as backward and violent.

"Saleh is not the sort of person who uses someone, then pushes them away," Abdullah said.

Despite all this, Yemen had had only one serious terrorist incident before the apparent attack on the Cole, which the government here still calls an accident.

In 1998, 16 tourists, most of them British, were kidnapped by Islamic militants. Yemeni security forces, fearing that the hostages were about to be executed, attacked, and four hostages died in the wild shootout that followed. The leader of the attack was hanged.

In another incident later that year, the government arrested several British passport holders who allegedly had plans to blow up major hotels, a church and tourist facilities in the country.

"It's a very religious country, but this is defined by a more personal observance of Islam than a political observance," said a Western diplomat in the region. "This country does not harbor terrorists as an official policy like you see in [the Syrian capital of] Damascus."

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