East of Aden A President Struggles to Keep Yemen Together
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.