11/11/2010 05:45 PM

East of Aden

A President Struggles to Keep Yemen Together

By and

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is beset from all sides. Separatists are mobilizing in the south of his nation while Shiites rebel in the north. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, meanwhile, has made the country a deployment base for terrorism, as evidenced by two recent package bombs.

A Toyota decorated with verses from the Koran has come to a stop above the docks. The sun is so bright you have to squint to see Sira Island and, in front of it, a smaller island upon which sits the villa of the man currently running southern Yemen -- "the only legitimate president," as Nassir al-Taawid says. Some believe this was the site of the Garden of Eden. And down at the docks is the site where the USS Cole was crippled by al-Qaida suicide bombers in October 2000, when a massive explosion against the hull of the warship killed 17 American sailors.

This is where it all started.

Taawid asks his driver take him back to the city. The driver wears a bin Laden beard as a sort of disguise. "It's less conspicuous," he says. If you want to be discreet in Aden at the moment, you have to play the pious Muslim. Times have changed. "We are an occupied country," says Taawid.

Taawid is a former major general in the air force. He is an attractive man, upright and ready to fight, but without a uniform or soldiers. The 53-year-old lives with his family in a concrete hut above the harbor. He's just returned from a meeting with members of his movement, Harak.

It has been 20 years since unification, and now Harak wants to divide Yemen into two parts again, taking it back to the days when it consisted of two independent nations between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden: the religious North Yemen and the socialist South Yemen, once aligned with Moscow. Ali Salim al-Bid, the leader of Harak and the last strong man in southern Yemen, no longer lives in the palace on the island in the harbor; he lives in exile.

The Almost-Forgotten Arabian Peninsula

For years, no one in the wider word seemed particularly interested. That was until December 2009, when a terrorist trained in Yemen, the so-called underwear bomber, checked in for a trans-Atlantic flight. Then some explosives hidden in toner cartridges, which had been prepared in Yemen, were shipped as airfreight. "In retrospect, the planned attacks were a blessing for us," Yemen's foreign minister said. "They have alarmed the world."

It's nice to see the bright side of things.

At conferences of terrorism experts, Yemen has replaced Afghanistan as an al-Qaida stronghold. Since bin Laden's network brought its fighters together in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to form the group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in January 2009, the most perfidious operations have originated in Yemen. Though relatively small -- the intelligence community estimates that AQAP consists of about 1,000 fighters -- the group is experienced and highly motivated. It includes former Guantanamo detainees, Islamists chased out of Saudi Arabia, and Yemenis who have returned from exile abroad. Yemen is also home to a large number of strict Islamic schools, which serve as a potential recruiting ground for al-Qaida. The country has deserts and mountains in the south that make military operations exceedingly difficult.

Finally, there is an entire region, the area formerly known as South Yemen, where poverty, disappointment and rage directed at the north have assumed dangerous proportions.

The jungle gyms of socialism are rusting away along the waterfront promenade in Aden. The city looks the way eastern German cities like Rostock and Wismar might look if the West had expelled the old elites in 1990, renamed the streets, absorbed state-owned enterprises and refused to spend a penny on post-communist redevelopment.

"Unification has brought us imams, poverty and dependency," says Taawid. Every government official in the south was assigned a minder from the north, he adds. Anyone caught drinking alcohol runs the risk of being pilloried. "This is the culture the north has brought us. Tribal society still prevails up there, even if they drive cars." His words reflect the bitterness of a man who has seen better days.

Curved Daggers and Marxist Remains

In the People's Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen, tribal names and veils were frowned upon, and women had to serve in the army. But the communists took a narrow-minded approach to interpreting the writings of Lenin, just as today's Islamist agitators do when it comes to the Koran. Thousands of people were killed in ideological power struggles that lasted only a few days.

The main street in Aden resembles Karl-Marx-Allee in the former East Berlin. There are conspicuous holes beneath the windows in buildings lining the street, marking the spots where the communists ordered the removal of all air conditioners. Poor people sweat; therefore everyone could sweat. Citizens of southern Yemen have had to put up with a lot from their regimes.

The men carry curved daggers in their belts and walk around with rounded, protruding cheeks, as if they were smuggling ping-pong balls. The reason is khat. The leaves are banned in neighboring countries, where they are considered a narcotic, but in Yemen khat is as banal as bubble gum. The best variety on the market right now is called "Russian Rocket."

The oldest section of Aden, called "Crater," is in the crater of an extinct volcano, and its jagged edges still jut into the sky around the city. A faded sign reading "Rambow" hangs on a building draped with chains.

This is the former trading office where Arthur Rimbaud worked starting in 1880. The French poet had tried to trade in coffee, spices and weapons. "The filthy Red Sea is martyred by waves of heat," he wrote in a letter home. "Aden is in a volcanic crater. The edges prevent any air from entering, and we roast here at the bottom of the hole." Today the building is deserted, the doors bolted and the windowpanes covered with dust.

'This is No Longer Our Country'

In all of Aden, there is not a single bookstore with anything but Islamic devotional literature on the shelves. Women can no longer venture outdoors without the niqab, or full-body veil. The vibrant port city is devoid of female faces.

"This is no longer our country," says the former General Taawid. "We want our country back. The government in Sana'a has to step down, and then we can talk."

But the government in Sana'a doesn't want to step down.

Harak is not an armed movement, but it's capable of staging assaults, or "sporadic operations, when someone is attacked," as the former officer puts it.

In the summer there were several attacks on police stations in Aden and Zinjibar, 50 kilometers (31 miles) farther east. The separatists accuse the government in Sana'a of using al-Qaida to define the resistance in the south as a terrorist movement. "We have no contact whatsoever with al-Qaida. The north sends us these devils so it can fight us and keep the Americans happy," says Taawid. He's firmly convinced that intelligence agencies in the north were involved in the attacks on police stations; but all indications point to AQAP.

"Here it is," says Taawid. His Toyota has come to a stop near a three-story colonial building, the Crescent Hotel. Queen Elizabeth II is a former guest. "We once saw Anwar al-Awlaki sitting here," he says. Awlaki is a suspected al-Qaida terrorist with an American passport, the presumed mastermind behind the package bombs. "He sat right here about a year ago, calmly drinking his tea."

The former Crescent Hotel now serves as the headquarters of the secret police.

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.

'Al-Qaida is Calling the Shots'

A study finds that Yemen will be the first country to use up its water supply. Up to 80 percent of the water used in agriculture goes to khat plantations. The country's oil and gas reserves dwindle at a faster pace than the Tourism Ministry can develop its El Dorado.

A large portion of Yemen's 23 million people live scattered around the country in 150,000 villages, isolated by mountains and deserts. Swaths of the country have no paved roads, water supply or electricity. Tribal leaders make laws. Although the president relies on the tribal system, his governors are often perceived as incapable and corrupt.

"There is a huge amount of diplomacy that needs to be done and is not being done," said Edmund Hull, the former US ambassador in Sana'a. "We have ceded the initiative to al-Qaida, and al-Qaida is calling the shots."

Washington has pledged up to $250 million in aid for 2011. But others say that Saleh is precisely the reason why Yemen, in the 21st year of unity, remains as disunited as ever.

'The Lackey of America'

Saleh celebrated the 32nd anniversary of his power, on July 17, with a table-sized cake and an equally sweet announcement: "We are prepared to form a national government of the entire political spectrum in order to hold elections in time," in April 2011. Since then, though, he's changed his mind.

Last Tuesday the army launched a large-scale, demonstrative military operation against AQAP. The president knows he can no longer take the interests of the tribal groups into account. The package bomb affair was too significant. Saleh must now prove to the United States, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world that he can manage on his own. He will have to apprehend the brains and architects behind the foiled attack, and he will have to do so quickly.

The Yemeni military has conducted operations in the southern provinces of Abjan and Shabwa since August. "From now on, there will only be blood and severed heads between us," Awlaki boasted at the time. "As long as you are serving the despot Saleh, the lackey of America, which is leading a crusade against Islam," he said, the soldiers would not be spared. Flyers were handed out in the streets of Zinjibar in September listing 55 officers with death threats against them.

There have been at least two direct battles with AQAP, in the cities of Laudar and Houta, where the army surrounded suspicious neighborhoods and evacuated the population. Then the areas were bombarded with artillery and from the air. The AQAP fighters managed, however, to escape.

US intelligence characterized the operations as a sham.

The regime in Sana'a is also seeking to weaken separatists in the south with its current campaign and establish its military in the provinces. Any criticism of the campaign has been painted as criticism of the holy war on terror.

The Harak leadership makes these propaganda efforts easy for the government. In Shabwa Province, the group's general secretary called upon fighters in late September to cut off access routes for the army. The entire campaign was nothing but "an excuse to subjugate the south," Ali Salim al-Bid, the former leader of the south, said from his exile in Oman.

In Aden, the Toyota decorated with verses from the Koran is now standing in front of an unsightly building. The words "Institute for Human Rights Studies" are printed above the gate. "The president is under great pressure from the USA, Europe and the Gulf states," says Takiya Abd al-Wahid, the director of the institute. He invites a number of people to discuss the issue in a carpeted garage. Sixteen older men are already camped out in the room. Barefoot and dressed in skirt-like robes, they chew khat leaves while watching tennis on TV, without sound.

Politics and Khat

These khat sessions are common in Yemeni democracy. Few would hit upon the idea that these men, chewing khat, belong to the old elite, but they are in fact former cabinet ministers, university directors, diplomats and governors of the People's Republic of Yemen, which came to an end in 1990. Some speak German and talk up their days in Dresden and Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz in eastern Germany).

Khat was banned under the socialists, except on Thursdays and Fridays. Now these former high-ranking officials have their cheeks full of the leaves. "It stimulates the mind," some khat users say.

The group discusses politics, the future as well as the past. Present in the room are leftist Nasserists and Baathists as well as pragmatists who would vote for the Islamic party, saying: "It's the only party that is currently strong enough to force the president to decentralize power." Maybe it's the calming effect of the khat leaves, but almost no one in the room believes there will be a new civil war between the north and the south.

Muajjad Barakat, a popular poet, says, "We cannot achieve much on our own. Unfortunately, the differences among us South Yemenis are also a fact." The most suitable framework, says Barakat, would be a country with multiple regions, "like Belgium or the former Czechoslovakia."

The men dream up drafts and seek to rectify old ideological differences. They have nothing but contempt for the regime, which they associate with an inability to break from the past.

Others, meanwhile, have long since been shaping the present.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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