Yemen and the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army

by Sheila Carapico | published October 18, 2000

One of the leads investigators are following into the October 12 Aden harbor bombing of the USS Cole is an obscure network known (or perhaps formerly known) as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. Terrorism experts are familiar with this group's past missions, including attacks on Yemeni socialists prior to the 1993 parliamentary elections, the kidnapping of 16 Western tourists in Abyan on December 28, 1998—four of whom died in a botched rescue mission by the Yemeni government—and other bomb attacks in and around Aden over the past several years. But few can tell us anything about the political context in which this group operates. Suspects in the case are Yemeni and/or Saudi dissidents targeting their own governments as well as British and US interests in the Arabian Peninsula.

Background

Once, in its days as a Crown Colony, Aden was among the world's busiest ports and a major United Kingdom naval base. Though traffic is moribund despite recent investments, today Aden stands astride one of the three major "choke-points" for the westward flow of the Persian Gulf, the Bab al-Mandab. All ships bound for the Persian Gulf from the Red Sea pass through the Gulf of Aden, within sight of Aden harbor and the minor port of Zinzabar, capital of Abyan. When Marxist revolutionaries drove the British from Aden and the South Arabian protectorates in late 1967, Abyan's sultan and major landowners were dispossessed and went into exile in Saudi Arabia, England or elsewhere. The simultaneous closure of the Suez Canal and the Aden naval base left Aden with few customers. The revolutionary government of South Yemen, later named the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), made it onto the US State Department list of state sponsors of terror for harboring Palestinian groups in the 1970s and for its close ties with the Soviet Union. PDRY exiles and migrant workers in Saudi Arabia were among the Arab volunteers for the much-romanticized anti-communist Afghan jihad. Like other mujahideen, they received military and religious training in Pakistan for the guerrilla war against the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. And like other mujahideen from North Yemen and many other Arab and Muslim countries, those from Aden-Abyan returned to their homelands in the late 1980s as "converts" to "salafi" (puritan or fundamentalist) or "Wahhabi" (Saudi) versions of Islam.

In 1990, North Yemen and the PDRY unified their two systems, both unstable and poor, and declared democracy. This is how the PDRY got off the State Department terrorist list—it ceased to exist as a state. The remnants of the PDRY army and the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party were defeated in a civil war in 1994 that left the army commanded by former North Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih in virtual occupation of what had been the PDRY. (Salih's regime likes to use the analogy of Northern Yankees versus Southern rebels.) The people of Aden, Abyan and other communities in the southern half of Yemen bristle under the watchful eye of security forces who are less efficient but not more benevolent than those of the PDRY. The "current" variously described as "Afghani Arab" for its militant elements and "salafi" or "Wahhabi" for its contrasts with indigenous Yemeni religious traditions supported Salih's war against the socialists. A few prominent spokespersons, notably Tariq al-Fadhli, who identified himself as a tribesman, heir to the Abyan sultanate and crusader for Islam, made alliances with Yemen's ruling party, the General People's Congress. Other self-styled mujahideen are now in opposition to the Yemeni as well as to the Saudi governments. This movement is not limited to the southern part of Yemen but extends as far north as the Saudi border, where Wahhabis have clashed with local religious authorities.

Dissident Currents in Yemen

The neo-Islamist current is hardly the only dissident element in Yemeni politics. Many people are protesting deteriorating economic conditions and the arbitrary powers of security forces. The week before the latest bomb blast in Aden, authorities were again arresting demonstrators affiliated with popular committees in Dala'a, inland and north of the Aden-Abyan corridor. There is a lively Yemeni pro-democracy movement. In Sana'a, Aden and other cities, jurists and intellectuals were criticizing a package of constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling party that would enlarge presidential powers while reducing the authority of the elected parliament. Ten years of a sagging economy and frustrated hopes for democratization had demoralized many Yemenis, in the North as well as the South.

Two previously unknown presumed offshoots of the Islamic Army—calling themselves the Islamic Deterrence Forces and Muhammad's Army—both claimed to have attacked the US destroyer with a dinghy or "fiberglass boat" packed with explosives. Of course, all these groups "have ties," via the Afghan jihad network, to Usama bin Ladin—whether or not he is the central "mastermind" of their activities. The network also seems linked to the circles of an imam at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London who until recently praised Yemen as the only Arabian country that had not bowed to Western military force. This connection might explain the bomb thrown at the British embassy in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, the day after the Cole incident. The perpetrators of the 1998 kidnapping, and perhaps the harbor and embassy attacks, included citizens of Yemen, other Arab countries and Great Britain.

The name "Aden-Abyan Islamic Army" therefore connotes an appeal to the right wing composed of deposed aristocrats, mujahideen and religious ultra-conservatives, but also to some extent echoes the frustrations of Yemenis from Aden, Abyan and elsewhere in the former South, including liberals and socialists as well as social conservatives. While the term "Islamic Army" implies an Afghan-jihad strategy, it also has a populist ring to it, as would the notion of a "Christian army" among the American religious right. The organization itself is probably a loose guerrilla network of a few dozen men, Yemenis and non-Yemenis. Zayn al-Abidin Abu Bakr al-Mihdar, the Yemeni founder and purported leader of the 15-20 kidnappers of British tourists in the Christmas season of 1998, was executed. After having initially denied the existence of any such force as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, the Yemeni government claimed to have wiped it out.

Improving Yemen's Image

After Yemen's failure to back the Saudi-US alliance against Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War severely strained US-Yemeni relations, the Salih administration, anxious to improve its image in the West, access to international finance and visits to its still under-utilized but potentially world-class port, welcomed the US Navy to Aden with open arms. Sana'a has also taken other steps to meet US conditions for closer economic and military relations. Since 1995, Yemen has accepted the bitter austerity package recommended by the IMF. In the summer of 2000 the government signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia on their mutual border, presumably to ease tensions with the Kingdom. Geographically remote from the conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories, Salih supports the Palestinians' current struggle but overall is seen as "moderate on the peace process." Recently Yemen began issuing tourist visas to Israeli Jews. The European Union and its member states, especially Germany and the Netherlands, support the government with economic development assistance.

President Ali Abdallah Salih came to power in 1978 after the mysterious assassinations of two predecessors, and recently won over 96 percent of the vote in the first national referendum to elect a president. Their own reports of arbitrary arrest, prison torture and harassment of journalists and university faculty notwithstanding, Western observers have been rather positively impressed by Yemen's democratic transition, as evidenced by two rounds of parliamentary elections.

Long List of "Suspects"

Anxious to show its cooperation with scores of FBI investigators sifting through marine debris and interviewing possible eyewitnesses, Yemen's national security forces have rounded up "hundreds" of suspects and manned extra army checkpoints at Aden's intersections and highways. Reports of heightened security that may reassure Americans and Britons concerned for the safety of compatriots in Yemen are bad news for the local population, however. In the past few years, the Yemeni government has detained dozens of reporters, scholars and political activists from across the political spectrum, the majority of them unarmed civilian critics who have called attention to corruption and arbitrary use of force. Already the number of those arrested following the double bombing of the Cole and the British embassy may well exceed the number of those affiliated with groups suspected of perpetrating the attacks. Hasty action to round up suspects in the Cole attack may well serve as a pretext to crack down on peaceful campaigners for democracy in Yemen.

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