By Jonathan Schanzer - The New Republic
Post date: 08.21.03 - Issue date: 09.01.03
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Along the serpentine road that heads east
from the Yemeni capital of Sanaa to the desert,
the barrel of a tribe-owned tank peers out over
rugged, lawless territory where heavily armed
local patriarchs shungovernment authority and
harbor Al Qaeda militants. In the governorate
of Ma'rib, a cigarette-smoking 10-year-old carries
a Desert Eagle handgun in his belt, one of some
60 million weapons scattered throughout this
country of 20 million people. At arms bazaars,
or souks, anyonewith a fistful of cash and minimal
bartering skills can buy rocket-propelled grenades
and heavy machine guns. Yemen's ubiquitous
weaponry is menacing and seems even more so
when you consider that the country has been home
to a string of terrorist attacks that began with
Osama bin Laden's first in 1992 and culminated in
the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000,
which killed 17 sailors. Recently, several
alleged participants in that assault escaped an
Aden prison by drilling through a bathroom wall,
raising suspicions about government
cooperation with terrorists.

Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral home, is widely
considered a war-on-terrorism basket case. Last
year, on the six-month anniversary of the
September 11 attacks, President Bush even
suggested that Yemen had the potential to
become another Afghanistan. But, in recent
months, Sanaa has made quiet but significant
strides in cracking down on terrorist elements.
In the war on terrorism, Yemen may yet emerge
as an unlikely success story.

The first improvements came in the aftermath of
the Cole attack, amid U.S. pressure for increased
counterterror steps. The United States squeezed
Sanaa even harder after September 11, 2001,
especially when it learned that Ramzi bin Al Shibh,
who Washington believes played a key logistics role
in the attacks, was Yemeni. But it wasn't until the
October 2002 attack on the French oil tanker Limburg
that Yemen's gloves came off. That attack cost this
poverty-stricken country dearly in environmental cleanup,
tourist cancellations, and port usage, which dropped
sharply after insurance rates shot up 300 percent for
vessels wanting to dock here. According to a government
report, "Investment projects which have been already
implemented at the cost of several millions of dollars
were suspended. Thousands of job opportunities were
lost. The total loss could be estimated at 1.8 billion U.S.
dollar [sic]." Such losses are disastrous in a country
where the average yearly income is an estimated $840.
The realization that it couldn't afford any more attacks--
combined, perhaps, with some unease at Washington's
ability to forcibly oust the Taliban and Saddam Hussein
and push aside Yasir Arafat--drove Yemen to
dramatically expand its anti-terror cooperation with the
United States.

The following month, in November 2002, a U.S.-operated
unmanned aerial vehicle incinerated a car carrying six
Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen's badlands, including the
wanted Ali Qaed Sinan Al Harthi, one of Al Qaeda's top
leaders in Yemen and a suspect in the Cole attack. In
December 2002, Yemen's rubber-stamp parliament
published a surprisinglyfrank, 96-page account of Yemen's
terrorism crisis, listing well-known attacks as well as
smaller hits that had failed to make headlines. And now,
nine months later, although two prominent Al Qaeda
terrorists and dozens of lesser operatives remain at large
in Yemen, there is a sense in Washington that Sanaa is
genuinely cooperating. The CIA and Yemen's interior
ministry have been working together, and FBI Director
Robert Mueller and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh
shook hands in Juneover the establishment of a "Legal
Office" in the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, formalizing an FBI presence that began in 2000. Yemen now ranks among
other valued allies with FBI offices, including Jordan and
Egypt. Contrast this with the obstinate Syria, which once provided the United States with great intelligence on
Al Qaeda but turned on Washington during the recent
Iraq war by allowing guerrilla fighters to cross its border. Yemen-U.S. coordination, on the other hand, is yielding growing dividends. Yemeni intelligence tips thwarted a
recent plot against the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa--a move
that reportedly earned the personal gratitude of President Bush. The London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat
reports that the FBI office in Yemen is now looking
for Anwar Al Aulaqi, an American of Yemeni descent
who was mentioned in Congress's report on the
September 11 attacks for his ties to two of the hijackers--Nawaf Al Hazmi and Khalid Al Mihdhar. In addition, military
ties between Washington and Sanaa have expanded, beginning with increased coast guard cooperation. U.S. Marines are also training eliteYemeni forces to ferret out shadowy Al Qaeda elements, and, in late June and July, Yemeni forces arrested 37 militants in operations against
the Islamic Army of Aden, a local group with known ties to
Al Qaeda, in a village some 280 miles south of Sanaa.
Yemeni officials say they have deported more than 5,000 terrorism suspects since 1998, and as many as 300
militants with known Al Qaeda links are in Yemeni jails.

Just as important, President Saleh appears eager to prove that he is not a typical Middle East autocrat à la Saddam, Arafat, or Bashar Al Assad. Thus, when Baghdad fell and
Iraqi citizens were seen burningposters of their ousted despot, Saleh ordered his larger-than-life posters removed from Yemen's capital. Saleh has also de-emphasized the role of his son Ahmad, a 33-year-old colonel in charge of Yemen's Republican Guard whose military post and rank--which were incommensurate with his experience-- were uncomfortably reminiscent of the roles played by Uday and Qusay Hussein. Although he had won a parliamentary seat in 1997, Ahmad was not nominated by his father's ruling party for reelection this spring. Instead, the General People's Congress lost Ahmad's constituency to Islah, the Islamist opposition party. Western observers still believe Ahmad is being groomed for the presidency when his father steps down in 2012, but Saleh now appears to be treading more carefully.

While Ahmad's political fate is yet to be determined, the
internationally monitored elections that took place on April 27 represented a modest step toward democracy. Although Yemen's political system is nepotistic and rife with accusations of corruption, democracywatchers, such as the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, say it is one of the freest in the categorically undemocratic Middle East. And, although Yemen's self-censored press might be viewed as an indicator of severe repression, in daily qat chews (four- to six-hour sessions when Yemenites munch on a mildly narcotic leaf), politics are discussed freely. Opposition groups, such as Islah and the Socialist Party, freely criticize the president, albeit within unspoken limits. Stepping outside those limits may jeopardize your access to power, but it won't jeopardize your life. While opposition leaders itterly accused the government of tampering with the April eections, most are still eager to continue participating in the country's deeply flawed but evolving democratic experiment.

This is not to say Yemen's problems are in the past. American diplomats are afraid to leave their heavily guarded compound because of recentviolence, and the Yemeni government continues to undercut Washington'smilitary and diplomatic efforts to varying degrees. Ahead of theU.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Saleh called for several large demonstrations (turnout estimates ranged from 200,000 to one million people) to protest American "terrorism." Last December, Yemen was found importing Scud missiles from North Korea, and, in mid-May, Saleh met with Mohammed Khatami, president of Iran, the other remaining state in the "axis of evil." He also met last year with Khaled Meshal of Hamas. Such developments are undoubtedly alarming, but they do not overshadow Saleh's contributions to the war on terrorism. Insiders here
say these moves represent not so much a turn against the United States as abalancing act they call "walking on the heads of snakes." As a survivalist leader in a weak state, Saleh knows he must not only cooperate with the West but also work with controversial Islamic leaders and a range of domestic actors. If cooperation with Yemen expands, Washington will be better positioned to curb Sanaa's more questionable activities. Indeed, this is already happening; Yemen has agreed not to purchase any more weapons from North Korea, according to one adviser. In that way, Yemen--once considered among the region's worst offenders--may one day become a case study in how to clean up a
terrorism-addled country.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Copyright 2003, The New Republic

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