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Friday, November 17, 2006

'Al-Qaida' hits back in Yemen

Militant attacks on Yemeni oil facilities and the arrest of alleged foreign insurgents in the capital suggest al-Qaida has resurfaced in Yemen in the wake of a mass prison breakout.

By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (17/11/06)

Four would-be bombers and a security guard died on 15 September as militants driving two explosives-laden vehicles attempted to force their way into two oil refineries at Hadhramout and Marib in eastern Yemen.

An internet message posted on 7 November on a website used by militant Islamic groups claimed responsibility for the failed attacks on behalf of a group styling itself "al-Qaida in Yemen."

"Those operations were only the first spark, and what is coming shall be harsher and more bitter," the statement warned.

Commentators pointed to the lack of sophistication displayed in the refinery attacks as a sign that the group had been recruiting new members after a mass prison break by al-Qaida inmates in the capital Sana'a on 3 February.

Two of the 23 escapees died in the refinery attacks and two prominent members of the group, jailed in connection with the 6 October 2002 al-Qaida attack on the Limburg tanker, were killed a fortnight later in a special forces raid on two houses in the capital.

The US and its European allies have steadily developed their strategic alliance with Yemen in recent years in response to militant attacks and regional and tribal insurgencies.

Jamal Amer, editor-in-chief of Yemen's prominent independent newspaper al-Wasat, told ISN Security Watch that "America's relationship with Yemen is more of a security relationship than a political, or other relationship. With regard to US aid, they offer Yemen about US$100 million a year."

Amer also said the US "trains many intelligence officers and also trains the Yemeni army and the Republican Guard."

The apparent resurgence of al-Qaida in Yemen in the wake of the prison break reflects the prior successes of the army and intelligence agencies in disrupting the group's cell structure. It also indicates that the organization is comprised of a small core group of insurgents.

Shifting affiliations and associations mark the Islamic militancy in Yemen.

Members of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan were accused of involvement in the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor on 12 October 2000, following the execution of their leader El-Hassan El-Mohader in 1999. The Aden-Abyan group had announced its affiliation to both al-Qaida and Islamic Jihad, and members of the group are believed to have since joined al-Qaida.

Jamal al-Badawi, who allegedly planned the Cole attack, was among the al-Qaida escapees, raising fears for the safety of international shipping routes and vessels docking in Aden.
Al-Qaida 'hub'

Experts differ widely on the nature of the ties binding the increasing number of groups claiming affiliation to al-Qaida following the destruction of the organization's Afghan bases in 2001. Some envision a coherent global insurgent network, while others see only a nominal connection between groups acting with complete independence.

Al-Qaida in Yemen sought to portray itself as under the direct control of the al-Qaida leadership in claiming the oil refinery attacks. "These operations came in response to directives from our emir Sheikh Osama bin Laden […] in which he ordered Muslims to hit the Western economy and stop the robbing of Muslims' wealth."

The reference to bin Laden tapes calling for attacks on oil facilities appears to reflect a lack of direct coordination between al-Qaida in Yemen and bin Laden's coterie.

Al-Qaida has strong roots in Yemen, with bin Laden accused by some experts of personal involvement in the movement's first operation, the bombing of a hotel in Aden on 22 December 1992.

"Yemen is a natural hub for al-Qaida. It is not a country that al-Qaida spread into accidentally," Yemen expert Professor Joseph Kostiner from the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv told ISN Security Watch. "So I don't know if you have a weakening or attenuation of al-Qaida and now a re-emergence. I think that they always existed as such […] Whenever they [al-Qaida] can they get stronger and they hit."

"It [al-Qaida in Yemen] is probably just a matter of a new cell or group of cells that have been able to grow," Kostiner said.

The group identifying itself as al-Qaida in Yemen does appear to cohere as a small, unitary movement that shares a common ideology, worldview and operational style with other elements of al-Qaida.
Foreign recruits

Yemen's Interior Ministry confirmed on Monday that seven foreigners - a Dane, a Briton, a Somali, three Australians and a European of unknown nationality - arrested in a secret police raid in Sana'a on 17 October, had confessed their involvement in an al-Qaida ring smuggling weapons to Somalia and in fundraising for terror attacks.

Two of the three Australians - Mohammed Ayub and Abdullah Ayub - are sons of the former leader of Jemaah Islamiah in Australia, Abdul Rahim Ayub. The radical Southeast Asian Islamic group is held responsible for a series of bombing attacks on the island of Bali and in Jakarta, and is thought to have close ties to al-Qaida.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) interviewed the mother of the two brothers in the month before their arrest in Sana'a, while Sydney's Daily Telegraph reported that the Ayubs had been linked to a foiled 2005 plan to bomb Sydney's Kings Cross Station.

The interview and subsequent arrests indicate a degree of security coordination between ASIO and Yemen's National Security Agency, established in 2002 to liaise with foreign intelligence services.

If demonstrated in court, the involvement of the Ayubs in al-Qaida weapons smuggling - likely intended for Somalia's Islamic Courts militia - could be seen as proof of ongoing connections and communications between jihadi groups in the Middle East and worldwide.

This impression was further bolstered by a UN report released this week that accused Hizbollah of training and arming Islamic Courts fighters.

The controversial head of Sana'a's Al-Iman religious university, Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, denied reports that the three Australian al-Qaida suspects attended his institution, accusing reporters of involvement in "a foreign campaign against [the] university and Yemen."

On 24 February 2004, the US Treasury Department branded al-Zindani a "specially designated global terrorist" for his alleged financing of al-Qaida in Yemen, describing the move as a step toward tightening the "financial noose around al-Qaida."

Kostiner believes it is likely that al-Zindani, who was with bin Laden in Afghanistan, still maintains links with the al-Qaida leadership "despite the fact that he is head of the university."

"In my opinion, he wouldn't be able to make official contacts, or meet him [bin Laden], but I'm sure that there are people that are go-betweens between them," he said.

The Yemeni government has refused to take action against the influential cleric, who leads the Salafist movement within the opposition Islah party.

"The Yemeni president [Ali Abdullah al-Saleh] a few days ago visited the university and denied the accusation that it was connected to terrorism. [He] said that his presence at the university was evidence that they were not connected to terrorism," Amer related.

"Before the [September presidential] election he also found government positions for all of the graduates from al-Iman. But the issue of whether or not al-Iman University supports terrorism is still present," he said.
'Hatchet man'

Islamic extremism and tribal violence in Yemen is fed by the slow pace of civil and political reform and by widespread poverty.

Ranked 151st of 177 countries on the UN Human Development Index, Yemen is the poorest Arab state.

"I think Ali Abdullah al-Saleh has been trying to get friendly relations with the United States for years. Because after the fall of the Soviet Union there was no other important force in the region, in his opinion, that could guarantee Yemen's safety and security, even against Saudi Arabia," Kostiner said. "After the hitting of the Cole, he [became] a hatchet-man against terrorism in Yemen."

"He [Saleh] cannot afford to fully alienate the religious and radical elements in Yemen by embarking on a full alliance with the United States," he added.

Al-Saleh was on hand for the opening of a donor conference in London on Wednesday in which officials from Arab states, the UN, EU and World Bank are expected to pledge up to US$5 billion for poverty relief efforts.

Al-Saleh has introduced limited democratic reforms in recent years, winning 77.2 percent in the September presidential election after initially signaling his desire to step down. Opposition parties believe that the president is seeking to secure the succession of his son Ahmed to the premiership.

Amer said the opposition alleged widespread fraud in the presidential poll and "was complaining about the president's use of the state apparatus or abilities [for electoral purposes]. But America was satisfied with the president's stance in fighting terrorism."

The freedom of the judiciary and press remain major issues. Amer was abducted and assaulted on 23 August 2005. "In the case of my kidnapping by armed men who were in an army vehicle, this was not investigated. Also some of my colleagues in journalism have been attacked."

"I was abducted because of al-Wasat paper's report about government scholarships for poor Yemeni students going to the children of government officials," Amer said.

With the Bush administration pre-occupied with Iraq and quietly ending its drive for the democratization of authoritarian Arab regimes, al-Saleh is unlikely to come under significant pressure to introduce substantial reforms that would break the hold of his General Peoples' Congress (GPC) on power.

Dr Dominic Moran is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent and analyst in the Middle East.
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