Al Qaeda’s Shadowland
By EDMUND J. HULL, New York Times, January 12, 2009
AMERICANS are scrambling to understand Yemen, where Al Qaeda has recently surged and the Christmas Day plot against Northwest Flight 253 was hatched. It’s not easy. Yemen has 5,000 years of history, complicated politics and daunting economic challenges. But we’ve made it more difficult to understand by allowing several myths to cloud our vision. Challenging these misconceptions is a first step toward comprehending and overcoming significant threats to American, Yemeni and international security.
Myth 1: The Yemeni government’s control does not extend much beyond the capital, Sana.
It’s true that the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces several security problems. Al Qaeda has operated there since the early 1990s, with its strength waxing and waning depending on the effectiveness of the government’s counterterrorism efforts. Since 2004, the government has faced an insurrection in the north from a group called the Houthis, who would restore a religious ruler. There has also been growing separatist feeling in the southern regions that tried to secede in 1994. And many of the tribes in the north are well armed and operate largely outside the government structure.
None of this, however, means that the government is confined to ruling a city-state centered on Sana. The Yemeni Army and national police exert significant day-to-day control over most of the country, and almost everywhere else on an ad hoc basis. Yemen is much like the United States in the latter half of the 19th century, when the government faced a rebellious South and a Wild West, but was hardly powerless outside the East Coast.
Myth 2: Yemen is a Qaeda haven because it is the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, who is supported by tribes in Hadhramaut Province.
Osama bin Laden’s father, Muhammad, was one of many Yemenis who achieved great success outside his native country. But the bin Ladens are not part of any politically significant tribe or clan, nor has the family sought to convert its wealth into power in Yemen. Osama bin Laden has some popularity, but no more so than elsewhere in the Islamic world. The Qaeda virus — which has been present in Yemen since 1992, when Qaeda members bombed a hotel in Aden where American troops had been staying on their way to Somalia — is the problem for Yemen, not Mr. bin Laden’s ancestral ties.
Myth 3: Yemen is torn by Sunni-Shiite divisions, much like Iraq.
The Houthi rebellion is often described as Shiite resistance against a Sunni establishment. In fact, both the Houthis and President Saleh are followers of the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam. Generally, there is no clear divide between Sunnis and Shiites in Yemen, although the Shiites tend to live in the north and northwest while the Sunnis, mostly members of the moderate Shafii school, predominate in the south and southeast. In any case, one’s sect matters far less in Yemen than in countries like Lebanon or Iraq, and it’s not unknown for Yemenis to convert from Sunni to Shiite as a matter of convenience.
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