East of Aden A President Struggles to Keep Yemen Together


By and

Part 2: Advance of the Fundamentalists

AQAP wants to overthrow the regime in Yemen and establish a theocracy based on the Taliban model. The group is led by a short man, bin Laden's 1.5-meter-tall (4'11") former private secretary, Nasir al-Wuhayshi. He and 22 others escaped from the supposed high-security prison in Sana'a in 2006.

Yemen's President Saleh is believed to have made an offer to al-Qaida fighters in 2009, supposedly promising the release of prisoners and free passage to Somalia or Saudi Arabia. Of the 60 senior members, 20 reportedly accepted the offer. But the diminutive leader of the AQAP was not one of them.

The new generation of al-Qaida has declared total war. It wants to bring down the government in Sana'a, and it has no ties at all with the nostalgic separatists in the south or the regime in the north.

Anwar al-Awlaki is its chief propagandist. He allegedly lives in a tribal area east of Sana'a, in either Marib or Shabwa Province. Because Awlaki's father is a former agriculture minister and is still an influential member of parliament, it is assumed that the government has a pretty good idea of where the cleric lives.

The government wants to prevent a US operation against Awlaki at all costs. A single drone attack against his clan could open a new front in the east. Last week a court in Yemen began a trial in absentia against Awlaki on incitement to murder foreigners.

As recently as June, it seemed a deal might be in the works. "We arrest Awlaki and sentence to a short prison term in Yemen," an insider said at the time. "In return, assistance is provided to the clan."

The prospects for this plan are nonexistent today, now that the package bombs have made a political solution vastly more difficult than before. Awlaki is too dangerous. There is no other group within the jihad network more adept at making bombs than AQAP. Its members are better skilled than the previous generation of terrorists. Anyone who believes AQAP can be brought on board to achieve his objectives is taking a serious risk.

'Street of Morning Dew'

A portrait of President Saleh hangs on every wall in Sana'a, the fairytale capital with its mud towers built in the Tudor style, like something left over from an ancient sand castle building contest. Saleh has been in office since 1978, first as the leader of North Yemen and then, after unification, as president of the entire country. In the portraits, the ruler looks stern and is usually glancing to the side. This is meant to give him a visionary look, but it creates the impression that he is trying to avoid the viewer's glance.

President Saleh rules the country by means of a finely woven network of patronage. His critics say he uses tribal feuds to his advantage, buys off his enemies, and is willing to come to terms with the Islamists if it will shore up his power. Since revenues from oil exports have drastically declined, though, it has become trickier to lubricate this system.

Many say there is no alternative to this president, a view shared by both the United States and neighboring countries. Yemen is too exposed geopolitically to take risks. Cooperation with Saleh is good, General James Mattis told the US Senate. "We have to forge close ties with the Yemenis," he said, noting that three particular threats -- the economic crisis, al-Qaida and local insurgents -- have taken Yemen's government and the military "to a breaking point."

President Saleh, though, has to play politics in several directions. He needs the Islamists and the tribal leaders, but he needs the United States even more. As a sign of goodwill, "Iran Street" in the diplomatic quarter of Sana'a was renamed. It is now called "Street of Morning Dew."

In his ministry, Nabil al-Fakih is making a genuine effort to correct the image of his country. He is Yemen's minister of tourism. He says: "A tiny number of tourists were kidnapped," and even fewer have been killed, he says. It's certainly true, but it isn't exactly a marketing slogan.

"Our country will become a true El Dorado for European vacationers…," the minister says as he slides glossy brochures across the table, "… just as soon as the trouble in the north and south is over."

He neglects to mention the trouble in the east, where, in March 2009, a young al-Qaida supporter detonated a suicide bomb, killing himself, four Korean tourists and a guide. The group had set out to take pictures of the sunset over the mud city of Shibam. He also neglects to mention the west, where pirate speedboats race through diving spots.

It isn't easy to be the minister of tourism in Yemen.

One Country, Disunited

In the north, near the border with Saudi Arabia, Houthi militias have been rebelling against the government for years. Their members evidently dream of Islamic rule.

Separatists in the south call more and more openly for a new division of the country. The area is home to many refugees from the civil war in Somalia -- 800,000 by some counts, and no one knows exactly who they are or what should happen to them.

Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy premier for defense, met with a group of journalists in April. Alimi is a short man with thinning hair and an air of dissatisfaction about his country's poor reputation. "The media are portraying al-Qaida in an exaggerated way," he says.

Alimi said the government had established a re-education program for thousands of former fighters who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s. Therefore, he said, "al-Qaida poses no danger to foreigners in Yemen. This is media nonsense, irresponsible and unfounded." Then the lights went out in the new government press room. A typical power outage. Or would that description be another exaggeration by the media?

Poverty lies like dust in the streets of beautiful Sana'a, where barefoot children pull plastic bottles on strings in front of mud walls that carry UNESCO protection. Yemen's national budget amounted to about $9 billion (€6.5 billion) in 2009. Germans spend about half as much on their dogs each year. Government ministries were forced last year to cut their spending in half.

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