Nine people, including seven Spanish tourists, were killed in Yemen on July 2 when a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden car barreled into a tourist vehicle convoy as it left an archaeological site. A new al Qaeda franchise calling itself “Al Qaeda of the Jihad in Yemen” claimed responsibility for the carnage, putting the lawless state of Yemen back on the list of “places to watch” in the war on terror. The bombing represents an unfortunate, but not unforeseen, turning of the tide in Yemen.
Four years ago, the government of strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh claimed to have successfully defeated al Qaeda in Yemen. With U.S. training and assistance, the government cracked down on the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan after a decade of violence culminating in the headline-grabbing USS Cole bombing of October 12, 2000, and the bombing of the French tanker Limburg on October 6, 2002.
After his officials heralded the defeat of the Aden-Abyan gang in 2003, Saleh boldly released dozens of suspects with links to al Qaeda to their families in exchange for promises that they would renounce violence. The government insisted that this unorthodox approach–the Yemeni approach–would be successful.
Unbelievably, three years of relative calm followed. Yemen’s primary problem was not international jihadism, but rather an internal insurrection in the hinterlands of Yemen’s Saada province led by Husayn al-Huthi, the leader of a Shiite sub-sect. Clashes over several months left more than 200 rebels and troops dead before al-Huthi’s group was neutralized.
Then in 2006, authorities foiled two al Qaeda suicide attacks against Yemeni oil and gas installations. While tragedy was averted, it was an indication that Yemen was coming undone.
The unraveling was probably inevitable. Yemen has traditionally encountered challenges from jihad-supporting tribal leaders who effectively rule the lawless parts of the country that Yemeni authorities cannot reach. Supporters of Osama bin Laden, whose ancestral roots lie in Yemen, have sought shelter in these areas, which are also known to have copious amounts of weapons that can be easily bought in free-wheeling arms markets.
Yemen’s final undoing, however, can be pinpointed to a 2006 prison break, when 28 accused terrorists escaped from a jail in the capital, Sanaa. Analysts openly wondered whether the government chose to look the other way. A prison break is a rare occurrence in an Arab police state. At the very least, the prisoners had help from the guards.
Now, according to the Yemen Observer, one of those 28 escapees, a man identifying himself as Abu Basir Nasir al-Wahishi (a.k.a. Abu Hureira al-Sanaani) claims responsibility for the attack on the tourists. He announced in an audio message that he is now the leader of Yemen’s newest al Qaeda affiliate group, the successor to the Aden-Abyan gang.
One would think the government of Yemen would learn its lesson: no more “get out of jail free” cards for terrorists. Such leniency only leads to the rise of other al-Wahishi’s.
But even as the Yemeni government rounded up 20 suspects and announced a $75,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the recent attackers, the government released at least three other convicted terrorists, including bin Laden’s former bodyguard Fawzi al-Wajeh and Ali Mohammed al-Kurdi, who was sentenced to death for his role in suicide bombings in Iraq and a hotel bombing in Yemen’s port city of Aden.
According to one Yemeni official who tried to justify amnesty for terrorists, “Fighting [terrorists] doesn’t work in the longer term.”
But Yemen is inconsistent on this front, too. Security officials shot and killed Egyptian national Ahmed Bassiouni Dewidar, a suspected al Qaeda operative and alleged plotter of the tourist site suicide bombing, when he resisted arrest.
When authorities subsequently searched Dewidar’s home, they found weapons, explosives, and forged passports allegedly used by al Qaeda to travel to Iraq and other Arab countries. The state-controlled Yemeni press has yet to release any further information about these findings, or about Dewidar’s links to other jihadists in Yemen. Indeed, it is inconceivable to think that Dewidar acted alone.
The recent news coming out of Yemen is conflicting, but mostly bad. U.S. authorities are now reportedly on the ground in Yemen, looking for signs of cooperation between Yemeni terrorists and insurgents in Iraq. More important, they should be looking for signs that Yemen is ready to take its jihadist problem more seriously. Saleh’s amnesty experiment appears to have failed.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury intelligence analyst, is director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center. He is author of Al-Qaeda’s Armies: Middle East Affiliate Groups and the Next Generation of Terror. He conducted research in Yemen in 2003.