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War to Crush Terrorist Group May Have Set Stage for Cole Attack

Yemen: The Mideast nation has yet to subdue a self-styled army of Afghan war veterans. Its executed leader was a Bin Laden ally.

October 29, 2000|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ADEN, Yemen — There was no public outcry here when the Yemeni government announced it had executed the man whose nom de guerre was Abu Hassan.

After all, the Islamic holy warrior had kidnapped 16 tourists here in 1998, leading to the deaths of three Britons and an Australian--an act of terrorism that tarnished and further impoverished the Arab world's poorest land.

But President Ali Abdullah Saleh, leery of creating a martyr, took no chances: The execution of the charismatic Yemeni leader of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan was an unusually private affair.

It was so low-key, in fact, that many Yemenis believe that Abu Hassan, an Afghan war veteran who had called for attacks with "sacrifices in blood" against the U.S. and Britain, and proudly proclaimed his links to wanted terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, never faced the firing squad.

Then, just a few days short of the first anniversary of his reported Oct. 17 execution, a terrorist bomb ripped into the guided missile destroyer Cole, killing 17 U.S. sailors in Aden's harbor. The same day, a bomb was thrown into the British Embassy compound in the Yemeni capital, Sana. And a communique issued that day in London took responsibility for the blasts in the name of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan.

Yemeni authorities have yet to present any evidence directly linking the Cole bombing to Abu Hassan's Islamic Army. But popular suspicion remains high among many Yemenis, for whom the self-styled guerrilla leader has achieved legendary status.

And the saga behind Abu Hassan's self-styled army of Afghan veterans and Saleh's efforts to crush their brand of Islamic fundamentalist terror set the stage for the deadly attack in the heart of a strategic port that the president had been using to court the West and open Yemen to the world.

The Islamic Army's claim was shrugged off almost immediately by counter-terrorist experts in the West, and even by some observers here. The Yemeni government had made a concerted effort to dismantle Abu Hassan's training camps and co-opt his followers, deporting the army's non-Yemeni members and doling out government jobs to the rest after his arrest.

Saleh, who personally signed Abu Hassan's execution order last year, said in an interview last week with the Saudi-owned MBC television network that the investigation into the bombing has led to Arab returnees from the jihad, or holy war, in Afghanistan.

Abu Hassan, who was born Zain Abdain al Mihdar in southern Yemen's crushingly poor Shabwah district, was among thousands of ardent Muslims from throughout the Arab and Islamic world who fought alongside the CIA-financed Afghan moujahedeen. When Kabul's Soviet-backed regime fell and the Afghan jihad collapsed in infighting among Afghan rebel groups, many used their guerrilla skills, arms and religious fervor to launch or escalate similar jihads against secular Arab regimes back home.

"They [the bombing suspects] come originally from numerous Arab countries," Saleh said. "At one time, they were present in Yemen, especially during the national crisis and the secession war [of 1994]. After that, the Yemeni government deported them. They left. But some pockets remain here and there."

A senior U.S. official acknowledged Saleh's campaign against the Afghan war returnees here, but added: "While they have this as policy, it's an unfortunate truth that the government does not have full control over all the territories and that there are elements that we would all consider terrorists . . . ."

For the Yemeni president and most of his 17.5 million people, however, the bombing of the Cole came as a shattering wake-up call.

Under his sometimes-harsh counter-terrorism policies, which began in earnest when the government captured Abu Hassan in December 1998, Saleh has cracked down not only on armed Islamic extremist groups but on tribal kidnappers and criminal gangs as well.

Beyond penetrating and neutralizing many of the Yemeni-based Afghan war veterans groups, the government doled out goods and services to tribes that traditionally have kidnapped foreigners.

It was Abu Hassan, however, who became the symbol of Saleh's stated intolerance for religious terrorism and fervor--and the image it engendered for his nation abroad.

The international furor that followed the kidnapping of the 16 tourists and its bloody outcome--a government rescue operation that left four of his hostages dead--brought travel advisories against Yemen from Europe and the U.S., which economists here estimate cost Yemen about $350 million in lost tourism last year alone.

"The government was desperate to get the travel ban lifted, and so were most Yemenis," said one Yemeni political analyst who asked not to be named. "It had to make an example of Abu Hassan--to send a strong message to every one of his supporters that this was the end they were going to face."

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