God, Nation, Revolution and trouble
The motto of the Republic of Yemen is "Allah, al-Watan, at-Thawra, al-Wehda", which when rendered into English means: God (Islamic), Nation, Revolution and Unity. Given the history of the region and the actions of outsiders, it is fair to say that while the first three ideals may be subscribed to, the “Unity” part is not and has never been anything but a mirage. In fact, other than the relatively recent unification of the currently recognized territory, the last time the entire area was under a single government was during the Ottoman Empire, and as one of the most remote extremities of that Empire was really never fully integrated. Before that, neither the Egyptian-centered Caliphate of the 11th Century nor the original Arab-Islamic Caliphs of the 6th Century could shape a single territorial holding from the region. Before that, the Roman Empire attempted to subdue the region, and failed. If one would accept a likely apocryphal argument, perhaps the only ruler to have ruled the entire area as part of a kingdom prior to modern-day was the Queen of Sheeba. Perhaps had the saad Ma’rib been kept in better repair, things would have worked out better.
For the collapse of the wondrous dam of antiquity in or about 570 A.D. (*all dates from here are A.D. / C.E.) destroyed the agrarian society of the region, led to massive population relocation to elsewhere in Arabia, first emigration and then a return immigration. By 893 the region of Sa’da (or Sa’dah; in the northern part of modern Yemen) had become a Caliphate of the Zaidi sect of Shi’a Islam, and the Zaidi Imam ran the theocracy there until 1962. Zaidi adherents remain the largest single sect in Yemen, with just over 40% of the population.
Much of the population of the Western and Central Highlands are Islamic Arabs as well, but more commonly Sunni belief is found there, influenced for a thousand years by the great centers of faith to the north in what is modern-day Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The center of this region, Sana’a (San’a), is the present-day capital of Yemen. So that these places can be put in better reference, here is a map of Yemen today.
Roughly contemporaneously, the coastal holding of various tribes on both sides of the Bab al-Mandab (the peninsula at the mouth of the Red Sea) were prosperous trading centers, but unlike the highlands in the center-north, the surrounding land was and is utterly rainless and disease-plagued. As was common in other areas of great Arabia (Oman and Dubai of note), this reliance upon the sea and trade was both a blessing and a curse. Yemeni merchants traded as far away as what is now Indonesia, gained great wealth and status, and yet were almost completely cut off from the nearby highlands or land-routes to anywhere. From the sea came fish and wealth, but from the sea also came… the British. In 1839, the British Empire occupied the port area of Aden (‘Adan), and placed it within their Imperial holdings. With the rise of Suez cargoes to and from Europe, this became a key point in the chain to East Africa and India, and was jealously guarded. All the things that Empire brought with it became commonplace there, including education in the European ways. Islamic Arabs, mostly Sunni but some of other sects; Christian Colonials; a substantial Jewish community (present since antiquity); the cosmopolitan ways of life in a trading center blended elements of all that together.
The beginning of the “new” Yemen, however, came from the inspiration of Gamel Abdel Nasser, the great Egyptian Arab-Nationalist whose part in the coup that brought down the Egyptian Kingdom was his ticket to the second Presidency of Egypt and world renown as the foremost leader in the Pan-Arab Nationalist movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. This ardent believer in a secular neo-fascist authoritarian system to unify the Arab lands (self-named Nasserism then; similar localized movements are more commonly called Ba’athist now) had considered any foe of the British to be his friend and at times had attempted to gain support from both Fascists (WW II Italy) and Communists (Stalinist Soviet Union). While his personal style better matched that of Mussolini, it was the arms and economic support of the Soviets that secured his power and influence. All this support was then secondhand gladly availed to any Arab Nationalist movement, and in Yemen this led to the 1962 revolution in the north. North Yemen had been autonomous since the Ottoman defeat in WW I, but never really organized as a modern state. Now the Red, White, and Black flag was carried to victory there, bringing down the Zaidi Imam and establishing the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) as sovereign over all the territory outside British control. Borrowing from the fierce anti-colonialism of the Egyptian inspiration, a state of hostilities then commenced against British Aden.
Like many of the “small wars” of that time, the British were perfectly capable of winning any military encounter they wished to, but given the loss of Empire and finally the closure of the Suez route, by 1967 the British decided to give up the game. The former Aden Protectorate was recognized as the People’s Republic of South Yemen, but less than three years later a radical Marxist wing of the National Front government gained control and declared the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), and threw in whole-cloth with the Soviet Union, the Communist Chinese, Cuban communism-exporters and the radical Palestinian groups that shared the same ideology. By the mid 1970’s, PDRY was a full client of the Soviet “Empire”. Unification with the YAR was a stated goal, and one pursued at first with little hostility by both parties, but by 1979 conflicts had stopped that brotherly intention. By 1988, fratricidal infighting in the PDRY had brought the country low and when abandoned in the wake of the end of the Soviet Union, the situation turned. Soon the YAR was offering unification, on their terms. The 1988 “understanding” between the governments and 1990 “unification” on paper was shortly thereafter replaced by the 1994 Civil War in which the armed forces of the YAR occupied all of the PDRY and declared de-facto unification under a government based in Sana’a. The Nationalists now had their unified Yemen, but…
But in the meantime, the rest of the Islamic world had changed. The driving force that had been Arab Nationalism had become discredited in the wars and tyranny of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The vibrant force in radicalism had become Islamist thought and deed in the War against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and it had spread to the homelands. When the Gulf War brought disorder (and a foreign presence) to the lands of Arabia, the wide-spread Yemeni community recoiled back to their native soil. Over three-quarters of a million Yemeni ethnics returned from Saudi Arabia alone, and they were mostly of the mind that the Saudi King had sold his soul to the unbelievers. Others, more radicalized, had been active in the Islamist armed movement that became the current plague that is the latest form of international terrorism. Usama bin Laden (Osama; strictly speaking: Usāmah bin Muḥammad bin `Awaḍ bin Lādin), has garnered support in many regions of Yemen even to this day. His group, al-Qaeda, maintains a separate command for the region, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and operates as commonly in Yemen as in Saudi Arabia, if not more so. The attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor in 2000 was just one such AQAP operation. Their efforts persist to this day, and the response of the Government of Yemen has been a tangled skein of crushing crackdowns and trivial tolerations. The mastermind of the Cole bombing plot was pardoned by the Government of Yemen. The police in Yemen are notoriously corrupt(-able) and the jails and court system are simply sieves through which Islamist radicals pass through the holes. More recently, the American Embassy was attacked last year by AQAP and a significant number of “former” Islamist terrorists have returned to their war by resurfacing in Yemen. Threat of more such attacks surface almost daily.
Meanwhile, the Government of Yemen continues to face social disorder in the formerly independent south and armed insurrection in the Sa’dah Insurgency in the north, where the Harf Sufian tribe has taken up the cause of the Al-Houthi clan Shi'ite rebels and are opposed by the U'seimat tribes and Government forces in a replay of the Zaidi vs. the State fighting of the 1962 revolution.
The Government of Yemen is distracted, disinterested in adding to its troubles and frankly nearly incompetent at the task needed to interdict and combat AQAP operations. The Coast Guard (granted, only founded in 2002) can not even take meaningful action without help against the rampant piracy and human trafficking in the Gulf of Aden.
There are more than 100 Yemeni nationals still under detention at GTMO Camp Delta as unlawful enemy combatants in the GWOT. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has stated that 94 of them are to be turned over to Yemen for “rehabilitation”.
This would be madness.
This would be the very definition of willful self-injury to Western interests.
In fact, until the Government of Yemen proves that it is acting in a manner not complicit with terrorist facilitation, they should be considered to be what they are…
…another failed state being used by the agents of terror.
…at best, a borderline Somalia.
…at worst, the next Afghanistan.
Most notes are embedded as links in the text. The following are also of interest:
CIA Factbook entry on Yemen
Jane Novak, the premier web logger on all matters Yemeni
Thomas Joscelyn at The Long War Journal on the two “returnees” now in AQAP leadership roles
The video announcement by these two Tangos. Text Summary by MEMRI (view by subscription only)
One additional note: The Jewish community of Yemen mentioned above was rescued, and is in the most part no longer present.
The following are Wiki-p entries for general information only. Please source all citations.
General Information on Yemen
General Information on the Sa’dah Insurgency
General and Historical Information on Zaidi Shi’ah
Historical Information on the saad Ma’rib, the Great Dam of Marib from antiquity
Also shows the modern dam serving the same purpose in modern Yemen