Originally Published 2010-02-19 00:00:00 Published on Feb 19, 2010
Just as Zia ul Haq and the ISI chose to keep the Mujahideen as an asset, so did Yemen President Saleh. Therefore, there should be no surprise at the presence of Al Qaeda in Yemen
Yemen: The Real Story
At a height of 8,500 ft, the old city of Sanaa, capital of Yemen, has a magical air of leisure, its maze of lanes, lined with multistoried mud and brick mansions, decorated with mosaic smudged with age.
But the peace that Sanaa exudes disguises the storm clouds of conflict, every bit as complex and dramatic as Afghanistan, Al Qaeda et al. For good measure, some pro Iran Shias too. The reason why the Yemen conflict does not dominate our TV screens is easily explained. The theatres of conflict in Saa’da, bordering Saudi Arabia, are bare, steep and craggy mountains, suited more for rock climbers than TV crews. Al Qaeda training camps are even more difficult to film because the terrain is vast and the writ of the state does not run beyond major cities like Sanaa and Aden.
That Prophet Mohammad sent Hazrat Ali as the chief Qazi of Yemen (two mosques built by Ali are in the heart of Sanaa) and Wahabi rulers from adjoining Saudi Arabia in the 19th century destroyed Najaf and Karbala, is symptomatic of the theological conflict which remains unresolved to this day. But I shall leave this to theological scholars.
For our purposes, let us pick up the narrative from the conflict between the Ottomans their influence confined to the north of Sanaa and the British who had their sights set on Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea.
It is interesting that while the caliphate was terminated by Ataturk at the end of First World War, an Imamate ruled Yemen upto 1962 when a revolution upturned it. Before you rush to establish links between Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid and the Yemeni Imamate, let me clarify. The system of Imamate is internal to the Shias who are segregated between believers of seven, twelve and an endless, continuing line of Imams.
But post Ottomans, Yemen remained two countries north Yemen with a population of 20 million, with its capital at Sanaa. South Yemen, with a population of four million had its capital at Aden.
When Arab socialism swept the Arab world under Nasser, the Southern, socialist fervent ousted the British in 1967. In the context of the cold war, Southern Yemen came under Soviet influence.
As an automatic reaction, Sanaa, under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, forged other alliance, even with Saudi Arabia. This particular alliance caused many of the Zaidi Shias of the North to seek surreptitious alliances with the socialist south.
Here let me insert another detail even on the pain of complicating the narrative further. When the last Imam Yahya, was under pressure from the Ottomans as well as the Saudis he bargained with the Saudis, his northern neighbour. Under this bargain, two districts of Nigran and Jizan were given to the Saudis on a sort of renewable lease.
According to Dr. Nasr al-Naqeeb, a well known Sanaa intellectual, the two districts are “oil rich”. This unverified fact makes sense. Otherwise why would the Saudis accept two Shia dominated Yemeni towns next door to the militant Shias called the Houthis (derived from name of their leader) who have been a consistent headache for both Sanaa and Riadh particularly since 2002?
Now, let us pick up the narrative chronologically from 1980s after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The US, Saudis and Zia-ul-Haq started manufacturing extreme Islamists in countless Madarsas in Pakistan for which that country is paying the price to this day.
For Prince Naif bin Abdel Aziz, Saudi Interior Minister, the Pakistani Madarsas were not enough. Thoroughbred Arabs had to be trained in militant Islamism too.
What better place to open training camps than in neighbouring Yemen, particularly since South Yemen was close to the very Soviets the militants were being trained to oust out of Afghanistan. Yemen President Saleh’s half brother Ali Mohsin al Ahmar took local charge of all the training camps. Look at the concept: bases for Islamic extremism would check wherever the Soviets reared their heads. It is this Arab component which is at the heart of what is called Al Qaeda as different from the Pushtoon dominated Taleban.
In 1990, the South lost its principal support with the fall of the Soviet Union. The South could no longer resist unification. Saddam Hussain played a leading role in helping Saleh become President of Unified Yemen in 1990.
Just as Zia ul Haq and the ISI chose to keep the Mujahideen as an asset, so did Saleh. Therefore, there should be no surprise at the presence of Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Since Saleh was beholden to Saddam Hussain, he opposed the wars on Iraq bringing him on a side opposed to the Saudis.
Taking advantage in a chill in Riadh-Sanaa relations, the Shia’s (Huthis) bordering Saudi Arabia stepped up their “Shiaism” on both sides of the border. For Saudis, the most offensive manifestation of this behaviour was the Shia celebration of Id-e-Ghadir, the most important Id on the Iranian calendar which sometimes offends other Muslims.
Border skirmishes alarmed Sanaa. Even more worrisome was the apparent coalition emerging between the secessionists in the South and the Shias in the North. Global pressure against Iran’s nuclear ambitions has agitated northern Shias into more cross border militancy, since the Saudis are leading the Arabs on this issue.
There have been reports, put out by US intelligence sources, that 400 Hizbullah fighters were, at one stage, present to fight alongside the Shias. These fighters have since been withdrawn.
All of this is terribly worrying for the Saudis. In the event of a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, Yemen northern Saa’da town could well be a retaliatory needling point against the Saudis!
In any case, there have been atleast five full fledged wars against Sanaa since 2002. International pressure has caused the two sides to sign a six-point peace agreement. One of the points is that the Shias “will refrain from attacking Saudi territories”.
So, in the old town of Sanaa people sit around in circles chewing Qat, a bunch of leaves, a sort poor-man’s non-addictive cockaine (imagine paan with an intoxicating edge), spending their days in this legally sanctioned national habit, quite oblivious of the storms which in their collective minds have hovered around them for as long as they can remember.
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