15 -21 April 2010
Recent targeting of Yemen by the US, ably assisted by its Middle East partner-in-crime, has made artful use of Eritrea, Al-Qaeda, Somali pirates and who-knows-what, putting the security of the Red Sea at risk — and in their grasp, warns Galal Nassar
Two weeks ago, under the title “Oil has poisoned the well”, Al-Ahram Weekly featured an analysis of the insurrectionist movements in Yemen. Its purpose was to examine diverse aspects of a national crisis that various outside forces are attempting to exploit with an eye to achieving broader regional aims, among which is to take control of the security situation in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. This analysis attempts to assess the dangers of the disintegration of Yemen, not only because of the implications it could have for this Arab country but also in order to shed light on the strategy behind a deliberate attempt to dismantle the Yemeni state.
No strategic analyst of security matters in the Middle East and the Red Sea area can ignore the roles played by Israel and the US in this process, as corroborated by documented evidence and logical connections between factual dots. The disintegration that has been ravaging Yemen since 2000 is by no means random; it is the product of cumulative destructive seeds sown by capitalist forces linked with Israel and abetted by many other factors.
From the Sabaen Kingdom in the late eighth century BC to the 20th century, Yemen was a fertile and bounteous country, praised by some as the “Happy Land” and by others as “a piece of heaven on earth”. It has long been known for the excellent qualities of its soil, though recently this resource was obscured by the greater attention that is now being paid to its oil.
YEMEN’S TRAIN OF DISASTER: The failure of the Yemeni state stems from various factors some of which have deep historical roots. The tribal makeup of Yemeni society has been one of the most intractable obstacles to the development of a modern civil society. Tribal disputes in Yemen have more in common with conflicts between ethnically or nationally distinct peoples than with conflicts within more ethnically and culturally homogeneous societies over matters related to the distribution of wealth and power. The latter conflicts are generally surmountable through accommodations that favour the establishment of a civic state founded upon justice, plurality and respect for human rights, such as the US, Italy and Spain, which underwent brutal civil wars and emerged as robust nation states that embraced all its citizens on a footing of equality within a framework of checks and balances between the authorities, the rotation of power, and other such guarantees against the forces of greed and the lust for power.
However, the Yemeni question has more modern roots. Prior to 1962, which is to say before national independence, the northerners regarded the south as part of their land. In the post- independent period the attitude continued to prevail, with the notion that the south had to be restored to the north. Upon assuming power in Sanaa in the 1980s, President Ali Abdallah Saleh campaigned to repair fences with the diverse factions across the political spectrum in the north, and succeeded in forging a broad-based national reconciliation beneath the umbrella of the General People’s Party, the state party, at a time when political party plurality was constitutionally prohibited. Meanwhile, the regime in Aden hunted down its perceived enemies at home and abroad both outside and inside the regime, which was founded on a one-party state.
Evidently unaware of the advantages of compromise, healing old wounds and giving other national forces the right to express themselves, the leaders of the south resisted forging any form of national reconciliation in the south similar to that in the north before the declaration of unity with the north in 1990, and they continued in the same manner afterwards. They only realised their mistake relatively late when, well into the civil war, South Yemen’s Socialist Party began to fracture. Soon, however, Abdallah Saleh’s front began to unravel in the north where disputes between the central authorities and the tribes in the governorates of Marib and Al-Jawf sent fissures through the Sanaa regime.
Embroiled as they were in internal crises, both regimes failed to capitalise on the oil boom in the Gulf and to effectively utilise remittances from Yemenis abroad and aid from the Gulf countries. In the north, in particular, cash surpluses were squandered filling the markets with imported consumer and luxury goods until these financial resources dwindled. The south, meanwhile, was beginning to feel the crunch from the shift in the outlook of the USSR, which under Mikhael Gorbachev, began to dismantle its network of alliances abroad and turn off the taps of financial and military assistance to such soviet satellites as the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen.
A new world was in the making as the Soviet Union collapsed and it was against this backdrop that the two Yemens issued their declaration of unity on 22 May 1990. However, the distrust and acrimony that had accumulated over recent decades kept the unity from extending any deeper than the name of the country, one flag and a single national anthem. Beyond this, there remained two regimes, two governments, two cabinets, two armies and even two currencies. Although technically there was a president’s council headed by a president and vice-president, in effect there remained two presidents who refused to see eye-to-eye. It was not long, therefore, before the situation deteriorated dramatically. Yemen was plunged into civil war, followed by a series of minor civil wars between the regime and rebel tribes, such as the Houthis, and the country descended into chaos.
The chaos in Yemen elevated this country to a cornerstone in US and Israeli plans to dominate the southern portion of the Middle East, which were moved into high gear at the turn of the millennium when the first Bush administration unveiled its project for a “New Middle East”. An easily accessible country, it overlooks the Bab Al-Mandeb, the strait linking the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. This strategic international water is extremely vital to Israel , which is why Israel has done all in its power since 1973 to secure control over it. Its efforts towards this end include:
– Expanding its naval presence in the southern portion of the Red Sea off the coast of Eritrea in order to intercept Iranian naval vessels and monitor the Sudanese coast.
– Stimulating Al-Qaeda activities in Yemen in order to hasten the dismantlement of the state and to be able to use the “war on terrorism” as an excuse to secure a military presence on Yemeni territory.
– Unleashing piracy along the Somali coast and in the vicinity of the Bab Al-Mandeb in order to justify a direct US- Israeli military engagement in the area.
We will discuss these activities in greater depth below.
THE RED SEA IN THE ISRAELI STRATEGIC OUTLOOK: The Red Sea occupies a prominent place in Israeli strategic and military scripture. David Ben-Gurion referred to it as ” Israel’s only means of contact with the East”. It was this outlook that gave rise to Eilat, which was born as a cross between a port city and a military base and accorded the highest priority in Israeli development plans. Encircled by a high- security cordon, it is perhaps the only Israeli city for which Israeli citizens, until recently, needed to obtain an entry pass in advance. The condition continues to apply to Arab citizens of Israel and to Arabs in the occupied West Bank.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia had long attempted to hamper Israeli designs on the Red Sea. In 1950, Saudi Arabia handed the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Egypt so that these could be placed under the control of the Egyptian military with the purpose of restricting Israelinavigation in the area. Attempts to obstruct shipping to and from Eilat were among the reasons behind the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956.
Over a decade later, when Egypt cordoned off the Gulf of Aqaba against Israeli ships,Israel launched a comprehensive war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. By the end of the offensive it launched on 5 June 1967, Israel occupied huge tracts of Arab land, quadrupling the size of Israel . The Sinai (61,347 square kilometres), the Golan Heights (1,158 square kilometres), the West Bank and East Jerusalem (5,878 square kilometres) and Gaza (363 square kilometres) were added to the pre-June area of 21,000 square kilometres. In the process, Israel took control over all the water resources in these territories, seized the oil wells and military facilities in the Sinai, and obtained the strategic advantages of the Golan Heights and Gabal Al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon).
The Arab countries now awoke to the true threat Israel posed, especially to those countries bordering it and the Red Sea. They also realised how important the Red Sea and the Bab Al-Mandeb straits were to Israeli strategy. Between 1970 and 1973, Israelistrategy received a major boost in the form of a secret pact with Ethiopia for military and intelligence cooperation. The development compounded the danger for the Red Sea countries and especially for Yemen. The importance of the Yemeni factor in Israelistrategic thinking was underscored by a report presented by Sanaa to the Arab League detailing Zionist activities off the Eritrean coast and revealing the discovery of a Mossad ring operating in the area. The leader of this ring, Baruch Mizrahi, was arrested in Hodeida in the process of drawing a detailed sketch of this Yemeni port city from a small boat that he had rented from a poor fisherman. The espionage ring was based on Barim island in Bab Al-Mandeb and its mission was to gather intelligence on the southern Red Sea and to track and assure the safety of Israeli ships passing through the straits. The Arab League dispatched envoys and a fact-finding team to check the report. They not only proved it correct but also learned that Israel , with help from the US, had leased the islands of Abul-Tir, Haleb and Dahlak from Ethiopia. The revelation prompted the Arab countries bordering the Red Sea to hold an urgent meeting on the matter in Jeddah on 15 July 1972. A year later, on 6 October 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a joint offensive againstIsrael . The war occasioned the Arabs’ first coordinated attempt to assert the right to exercise their sovereignty over their territorial waters in the Red Sea. On 14 October, Yemen actively joined the war effort, dispatching forces to several islands in the Bab Al-Mandeb area in order to strengthen the maritime blockade against Israel and forestall anyIsraeli attempt to occupy the islands.
Between 1973 and 1979 the Arabs held further conferences and meetings with an eye to protecting the Red Sea, neutralising it from inter-
national conflicts and asserting its Arab identity. They also adopted a resolution calling upon the Red Sea countries to cooperate, to utilise the Red Sea’s wealth and resources for the benefit of the peoples of the region, and to obstruct Israel ‘s attempts to strengthen its relations with African countries near the southern entrance to the Red Sea. In October 1977, North Yemen sent a secret memorandum to the Arab League confirming a growingIsraeli and Ethiopian military presence along the Eritrean coast and in the vicinity of the Bab Al-Mandeb. The memorandum cautioned that Ethiopia had sold the coastal strip of Eritrea to Zionist intelligence agencies which would enable Israel to jeopardise Yemen’s influence in the area. At the time, Arab influence over the area was weakening, in part because of the hostile behaviour by some Arab countries towards a number of African countries and in part because of the lack of a unified Arab policy towards the Horn of Africa, a deficiency exacerbated by acrimonious disputes between Arab countries located in the Horn of Africa, namely Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia, all of which came as a boon toIsraeli strategy in the area.
However, it was with the Camp David accord signed between Egypt and Israel on 16 March 1979 that one of the foremost obstacles was removed from Israeli activities in the Red Sea. With Egypt out of the way, Israeli ships moved freely through the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal and established a presence disproportionate to the actual size of Israel in the Red Sea. The commander of the Israeli navy at the time expressed the Israeli vision for the Red Sea explicitly.
“Egypt’s control over the Suez Canal only gives it one key to the Red Sea. The other and more important key from the strategic perspective is the Bab Al-Mandeb. Israelmust therefore strive to control that important passageway and it must develop its navy in a qualitative way.”
The Israeli writer Elyaho Salbetr adds, ” Israeli defence specialists and planners are well aware of the Arab threat that looms in the Red Sea which underscores the importance ofIsrael ‘s relations with the non-Arab countries in East Africa.”
Eritrea’s winning of its independence against the backdrop of the sweeping repercussions of the collapse of the Soviet Union furnished Israel with a more favourable climate to operate in that region and to strengthen its relationship with the countries of the Horn of Africa, particular. Eritrea soon became Israel ‘s spearhead in the southern Red Sea, andIsrael backed and led the Eritrean seizure of the Hanish islands on 15 December 1995.Israel supported the Eritrean independence movement, backing the faction led by Isaias Afwerki. In 1990, an Israeli delegation visited Asmara with the purpose of assessing the situation in Eritrea and the southern Red Sea. On the basis of its findings, Israelistrategists drew up an urgent plan of action for East Africa. The subject of a five-hour secret Knesset meeting on 16 March 1992, the plan set the following objectives:
– To develop closer ties with Eritrea as a stepping stone towards developing relations with other African nations, such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Kenya, in order to counter Arab influence in Africa.
– To strengthen the Israeli military presence in the Red Sea, along the Eritrean coast and in Ethiopia. (Already, 1,700 Israeli military experts had been sent to Eritrea in 1990 to train the Eritrean army).
– To strengthen economic relations with Eritrea.
Israel quickly consolidated its relations with the political elite of Eritrea through the construction of sumptuous palaces, the provision of 60 grants for Eritrean students to study in Israel , and numerous cultural exchanges. On 13 February 1993, a security and economic delegation paid a five-day secret visit to Asmara which resulted in the conclusion of an extensive agreement that was officially signed by presidents Rabin and Afwerki in March that year in Tel Aviv. Israel was obliged by the agreement to supply Asmara with agricultural and military experts and to construct the entire Eritrean infrastructure. In exchange, Asmara would permit full Israel military presence in Eritrea and freedom of movement to Israeli military and intelligence personnel throughout the country. In addition, Asmara would refrain from entering into cooperative arrangements with Arab countries and indefinitely postpone the idea of joining the Arab League. Soon after the agreement was signed, 3,000 Israeli soldiers were stationed on bases in the Eritrean provinces near Sudan and across from Yemen. Of particular strategic value was Sorkin mountain overlooking the Bab Al-Mandeb, on which the Israeli s installed radars to monitor the some 17,000 ships that pass through the Red Sea annually, not to mention 30 per cent of the global output of oil. In mid-November 1995, Eritrean forces attempted to occupy Greater Hanish but were repelled by Yemeni forces. This was before the Israeli -assisted attack and showed that Eritrea, on its own, was not yet strong enough to take the island.
The Hanish archipelago is a group of islands located off the coast of Al-Khoja province and forms the closest Yemeni islands to the crucial sea lanes leading to and from the Bab Al-Mandeb. In the 1970s, Yemen allowed Eritrean revolutionaries to use these islands to store the arms they would use in their conflict with Ethiopia. In the early 1980s a lighthouse was constructed on the eastern part of Arabat on the island of Zuqar. Zuqar mountain affords a view of all the maritime routes in the Red Sea and the Eritrean coast, and is of great military value. Greater Hanish, with an area of 66 square kilometres is the largest of this group of islands. Lesser Hanish, located to the south of Zuqar, is an outcrop of volcanic rock around 10 square kilometres that rises 127 metres above sea level and is located about 38 kilometres from the Yemeni coast and 70 kilometres from the Eritrean coast. The Yemeni port authority built a lighthouse on it in 1981.
The Hanish islands had been under dispute between Yemen and Ethiopia prior to the official declaration of Eritrean independence in 1993. Tensions between the two countries over the islands often flared into the open, as occurred in 1974, because the islands served as bases and arms caches for Eritrean rebel forces. It is most likely for this reason that various sources and maps indicate that Eritrea had initially recognised the Yemeni claims to the islands. After the unification of Yemen in 1990, Yemen began to build and operate lighthouses on the islands. The lighthouses, constructed in cooperation with the German Siemens company, operate by solar power and were intended to assist international navigation, as all international maritime routes in that area pass through Yemeni territorial waters. But the lighthouses were also meant to serve as a tangible reminder of Yemen’s historical right to and sovereignty over these Red Sea islands. During the build-up to the 1973 war with Israel , Yemen gave Egyptian forces access to these islands in accordance with a secret agreement signed between Yemen and Egypt on 12 May 1973. Neither Ethiopia nor any other country lodged an objection to this Yemeni decision.
Following the declaration of Eritrean independence on 25 May 1993, the Eritrean government made no claims whatsoever to the islands and Yemen proceeded as usual on the basis that the islands belonged to it. The Yemeni government continued to support a small garrison there, Yemeni fisherman continued to cast their nets in the vicinity, and foreign tourists would take their permits to visit the islands from the Yemen tourist authority. It therefore came as quite a surprise that the islands would be the cause of a sudden deterioration in relations with Eritrea, which began to lay claims to Greater and Lesser Hanish and Zuqar in the autumn of 1995. In early November 1995, Asmara demanded the evacuation of the Yemeni garrison on Greater Hanish. In response, Yemen sent a delegation to Asmara to negotiate over maritime borders between the two countries. On 7 December 1995, the parties agreed to defer these negotiations until the end of Ramadan in 1996.
ISRAELI-ERITREAN COOPERATION: Eritrea’s assault against Greater Hanish was the fruit of the above-mentioned military and economic cooperation agreement it signed with Israel. The first time Eritrean forces attempted to seize the islands, on 15 October 1995, they were repelled by a Yemeni garrison that was only 300 men strong. Following this setback, president Afwerki flew to Israel to meet with Rabin and plead for help. That was immediately forthcoming in the form of an arms deal consisting of six Blackhawk and Dolphin military helicopters, an Arabah naval reconnaissance plane, a naval radar system, a collection of sea- sea Gabriel missiles, and six Rashif and Saar missile craft, all of which were deployed in a second assault on the Yemeni islands on 15 December. The pact also included a unit of Israeli officers and soldiers who took part in the offensive. Operating under the command of Air Force Lieutenant Michael Dumas, they operated the Israeliarms and equipment.
Subsequent Israeli reports claimed that Eritrean control over Greater Hanish was part of a pre- emptive regional strategy Israel was implementing to defend international maritime traffic in the Red Sea against potential threats from Sudan, Yemen and Iran and to forestall any attempts to close off access to Eilat by means of a blockade of the Bab Al-Mandeb as Yemen had done in 1973. Three Yemeni soldiers from the garrison on Hanish died during the attack which ended with the Eritrean- Israeli occupation of the island. Sanaa did not attempt to retaliate by force. Instead, it contacted the Eritrean government and expressed its desire to preserve good relations with Eritrea and to resolve the situation through peaceful negotiations in accordance with the principles of international law. The two parties thus entered direct negotiations, heeding the Arab League’s call to self-control and peaceful dialogue, and the crisis was eventually diffused through international arbitration. On 26 August 1996 the Security Council called upon the two parties to accept the agreement on principles and refrain from the use of force. On 9 October, the International Court of Justice issued its final verdict, ruling that all 43 islands of the Hanish Archipelago, inclusive of Greater Hanish and Zuqar, belonged to Yemen. On 1 November 1998, Eritrea formally handed control of Hanish back to Yemeni forces.
Although Yemen won its case, the arbitration process had other practical outcomes. Firstly, during the process the US asked Eritrean forces to round up members of the Eritrean Islamic Hamas Front and expel them from the island in the interest of safeguarding the Eritrean regime. Second, as a reward for siding with Israel and rivalling Yemen over the control over the Bab Al-Mandeb, Eritrea was cast as a new and major player in the region. Third, the drive to officially establish the Arab character of the Red Sea was frustrated by Eritrea’s refusal to declare its Arab identity and join the Arab League.
THE RISE OF AL-QAEDA: Before examining this aspect of the Yemeni question, I must first register my belief that the so-called Al-Qaeda organisation was born as and remains a kind of CIA unit. Most alleged Al-Qaeda leaders had close links with the CIA as did the other Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The same applies to the next generation of Al-Qaeda leaders, such as Ayman El-Zawahri, Omar Al-Masri and Anwar Al-Ulaqi who, moreover, was educated in the US. In addition to the suspicion surrounding the true affiliation of the leaders, it should also be borne in mind that Al-Qaeda is essentially a loose network of separate groups which are not bound by an organisational link. This makes the organisation easy to infiltrate and to use as a cover for any number of actions committed in its name. Finally, it is no coincidence that all the operations of this organisation are associated with Arab and Islamic countries that the US has earmarked to engineer the changes it needs to redraw the map of the region and produce the “New Middle East”. When the US and its allies point to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemeni, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq and, subsequently, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria as countries that breed and export terrorism they are effectively attempting to justify various forms of foreign intervention. Al-Qaeda is the cat that is set on fire and let loose in the fields. Every one of the countries just mentioned is a candidate for bursting into flame because of the Al-Qaeda cat, which the American firemen have vowed to hunt down with their guns regardless of sovereign boundaries. After accomplishing their mission, the firemen might just decide to make these countries home for several years, helping themselves to whatever wealth and resources are to be had.
A decade after it was founded, Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center in New York, setting off a chain of events that struck the Arab and Islamic worlds harder than anywhere else. The military pursuit of Al-Qaeda beat a path of destruction through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and, most recently, Yemen. These were the names that topped the list of countries designated for the project of the New Middle East, the map for which was captioned by its architects, “Blood borders: How a better Middle East would look”. It was precisely in this spirit that former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice remarked, “This project will not succeed without great sacrifices such as a torrent of blood.” It takes no more than a quick glance at the course of events in the Middle East since 9/11 to ascertain that it is, indeed, paying this price.
AL-QAEDA AND THE FAILURE OF THE YEMENI STATE: The name of Al-Qaeda was first linked to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in October 2000. That date marked two important starting points: the beginning of the rise of Al-Qaeda and the beginning of the gradual collapse of authority in Yemen. The latter process would, naturally, be aided by the former. The central government in Sanaa has been losing its grip on the country because it is engaged in many battles at once. In the north it is fighting the insurrectionist Houthi movement. In the south it faces mounting civil discontent and a possible secessionist movement. In these areas and elsewhere it is hunting down Al-Qaeda members and fighting poverty, unemployment, tribal unrest, declining oil revenues and dwindling water supplies.
Such conditions form the perfect refuge for Al-Qaeda whose operatives infiltrated into Yemen with the aid of US satellite technology. In addition, the country’s rugged terrain, combined with the government’s inability to police it adequately, make an excellent setting for Al-Qaeda to use Yemen as a base for recruitment and training and for launching operations with far-reaching consequences. After all, Yemen is located in a region rich with oil and it sits astride one of the world’s most crucial maritime routes. Former Yemeni prime minister Abdel-Karim Al-Aryani believes that Yemen should have foreseen the threat Al-Qaeda posed to the country’s national security and territorial integrity much earlier on. “We should have seen the attack on the USS Cole as a major warning to us from Al-Qaeda. But no one at the time gave it much attention. As a result, Al-Qaeda has become much harder to fight now than it would have been in 2000,” he said.
Indeed, the longer the problem was left unaddressed the more it spun out of control, and the more malicious aims became confused with noble aims, tribal law with civil law, and Al-Qaeda members with tribal members. Moreover, the bombing of the American warship became a pretext for Washington to gradually diminish its support for the Sanaa regime preparatory to pronouncing Yemen a failed state. Washington was dissatisfied with the Yemeni authorities’ handling of the persons suspected of involvement in the bombing, some of whom were released and others of whom managed to escape from prison. Further aggravating tensions between Sanaa and Washington was the former’s refusal to hand over two of the suspects to the US, one of whom was thought to be the mastermind behind the bombing. A major reason why Yemen slackened in its pursuit of Al-Qaeda operatives following an initial spurt of successful antiterrorism activities in the wake of 9/11 was its fear of losing the support of certain clans and religious figures. However, since January 2010 Sanaa has intensified its offensive against Al-Qaeda militias, having received a new injection of US military aid for the purpose and now convinced that the militias pose a direct threat to the regime.
But the regime still faces some life-and-death choices. It needs the support of the clans now more than ever in its fight against the Houthis, for without their support it risks losing the next round against these insurgents in the north. A Houthi win, in turn, could precipitate further divisions and fuel insurrectionist impulses among other tribes. On the other hand, if the regime refuses to yield to American demands to uproot Al-Qaeda, Yemen will become vulnerable to direct foreign military intervention which will begin with the bombardment of the tribal areas where Al-Qaeda operatives are presumed to be based. In other words, the pursuit of Al-Qaeda in Yemen could prove counterproductive. It could lead to a situation similar to that in Pakistan where American bombardment of tribal areas along the borders with Afghanistan has worked to increase the popularity of Al-Qaeda among the tribes in those areas and to expand the scope and intensity of the confrontation as Al-Qaeda feels its own strength. To compound the predicament there is the problem of the government of a Muslim country being perceived as spilling Muslim blood and presenting the country as a gift to non-Muslim powers.
The upshot of the Yemeni efforts to combat Al-Qaeda is that Yemen was placed on the list of the world’s most dangerous countries and branded an exporter of global terrorism. As Bruce Riedel of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy wrote, “The attempt to destroy Northwest Airlines flight 253 en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day underscores the growing ambition of Al-Qaeda’s Yemen franchise, which has grown from a largely Yemeni agenda to become a player in the global Islamic jihad in the last year.”
Putting it more bluntly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that the increased Al-Qaeda activity in Yemen poses a threat that goes beyond that country and the Middle East at large. She made the remark following a meeting with Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem in Washington and added, “We see the global implications from the war in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by Al-Qaeda in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region.” In early January, the US, Germany, Britain, Spain and Japan closed their embassies in Sanaa for several days as a means to magnify the Al-Qaeda threat and compel Yemeni authorities to comply with Western demands to take military action against Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Significantly, Riedel observes, “Since merging with the Al-Qaeda franchise in Saudi Arabia last January and renaming itself Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it has stepped up operations in Yemen itself, struck inside Saudi Arabia, and now operates on the global stage. The weak Yemeni government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, which has never fully controlled the country and now faces a host of growing problems, will need significant American support to defeat AQAP.”
He continues: “Al-Qaeda has long been active in Yemen, the original homeland of Osama bin Laden’s family, and one of its first major terror attacks was conducted in Aden in 2000, when an Al-Qaeda cell nearly sank the USS Cole. A year ago, the Al-Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged after the Saudi branch had been effectively repressed by the Saudi authorities under the leadership of Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohamed bin Nayif. The new AQAP showed its claws last August, when it almost assassinated the prince with a suicide bomber who had passed through at least two airports on the way to his attempt on Nayif.” It is now believed that the same bomb-makers who produced that device also made the bomb that Omar Al-Farouq Abdel-Mutallab attempted to use on the Amsterdam-Detroit flight. When claiming credit for the Detroit attack, AQAP boasted of having built a bomb that “all the advanced, new machines and technologies and the security barriers of the world’s airports” were unable to detect. The organisation praised the “mujahideen brothers in the manufacturing section” for constructing such a “highly advanced device” and vowed that more attacks would follow. Riedel observes that Yemen’s sporadic attempts to repress Al-Qaeda met with little success because the Abdallah Saleh government has a host of other pressing problems to deal with. He concludes that if Yemen is to overcome the Al-Qaeda problem it will need considerable encouragement and help from abroad.
REGULATING PIRACY: Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, currently commander of US naval forces in Europe and Africa, and NATO commander in Naples, has stated, “Somali pirates get a lot of logistic support, equipment and intelligence on the locations of ships from people in Yemen.” The admiral’s remark echoed throughout the Western press, with one newspaper reporter Jean Novak contributing the additional claim, “Somali pirates are hiding their main boats in Yemen’s territorial waters”.
One cannot escape the impression that the US is seeking justifications to build up its military presence in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Reports from Washington further claim that terrorist elements are leaving Somalia for Yemen and that Yemen is Al-Qaeda’s transfer point to Somalia. The same newspaper quotes the UN commission for monitoring the arms ban on Somalia as saying that Yemen is the chief source of illicit arms and ammunition and that Sanaa’s inability to halt widespread arms smuggling is a major obstacle to the restoration of peace and security in Somalia.
Note the tiresome repetition of the names of the countries identified for the “New Middle East” project, appearing in the lists of countries that support terrorists or branded as “rogue” states, or classified as “failed” states that need to be rehabilitated by successful states. All of these countries, whether located in Eurasia, the Middle East or the Horn of Africa, also happened to sit atop vast oil and gas resources. The implication is that not only are they incapable of managing their own resources but also that when such precious energy resources lie in the hands of states like these they constitute a danger to international peace and security and, hence, must be relieved of control over them. It is little wonder, therefore, that the architects of US national security strategy after 9/11 combined the dependent variable “terrorism” with the independent variable “oil”. Together they furnish ever ready pretexts for military intervention, which strengthens the belief that the race for control over energy resources is the primary drive behind the post-9/11 security strategy with the aim of promoting US national interests and those of its allies, in that order.
But there are other curious aspects to the Somali pirate phenomenon. One is especially struck by the fact that certain major powers seem to be controlling it and regulating its pace. The prime candidates for this role are those with a strategic vision for this region, namely the US, and Israel above all. Piracy in the Gulf of Aden near the Bab Al-Mandeb has the charm of appealing to international intervention in the area on the grounds that it threatens the security of one of the most important maritime routes in the world.
The International Maritime Bureau has recorded 51 Somali pirate attacks since the beginning of this year alone. The pirates now hold more than 50 ships, one of which has 40 tanks on board. There are an estimated 1,100 pirates operating in four bands. Most are former coast guards and use high speed boats launched from a mother ship. They are equipped with machine guns, hand grenades, portable missile launchers and other light weaponry, and with GPS technology. The ransoms they demand range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions, depending on the type of ship they capture and the identity of those on board. According to the latest estimates, the pirates have raked in between $25-30 million up to now. Regardless of how they began their operations, they are no longer petty opportunists driven to maritime crime by the civil war and destitution that have ravaged their country; they are big business. It is not surprising that certain powers would seize upon the opportunity to turn the phenomenon to their advantage. Chaos on the high seas serves the schemes of the US administration and Israel to assert their control over strategically sensitive areas. The US- Israeli cordon around the Bab Al-Mandeb is now complete. The two countries control Eritrea, they have neutralised Djibouti and the US has installed intelligence bases there. Now they are patrolling the coastal waters in the area on the pretext of hunting down pirates. In addition, they are poised to intervene in Yemen. The confessions of the terrorist cell captured in Sanaa in mid-2009 furnish incontrovertible proof of the extent of the danger Israel poses in the region. They revealed that they had been in close and direct contact with the office of the Israeli prime minister and disclosed various details of the plans that Israel harbours for Yemen.
US-ISRAELI COMMON AIMS: The US and Israel are intent, above all, to remove Arab control from the Bab Al-Mandeb and the Red Sea in general. Towards this end they have worked to intensify their military presence in the area and to obtain Security Council resolutions aimed at internationalising the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba, in the hope of legitimising their presence in these waters and the Red Sea islands on a permanent basis. When one notes the rapid flare-up in Somali pirate activity off the Somali coasts and in the Gulf of Aden, one cannot help but to remark on the mysterious silence from Israel on the subject and on the fact that in spite of the thousands of ships that have been hijacked or obstructed over the past two years, not one carried an Israeli flag or was bound to or from Eilat.
As for the US, we read in the International Crisis Group report 95 (11 June 2009): “The US has a military base in Djibouti — the only one of its kind in Africa — to serve as a regional coordination centre in the fight against terrorism. With an annual budget of $100 million, its focus area is Somalia. It has created and funded several Somali networks and organisations to fight terrorism and is assisting a military base in Puntland in the tasks of collecting intelligence on and capturing suspected terrorists. Its other missions include monitoring seaports and airports and protecting foreigners. In other words, the US enjoys broad powers in Puntland, whose coasts are used as a springboard for pirate operations, which the US could stop if it wanted.” Interestingly, in this regard, whenever world media sounds the alarm on piracy in the Gulf of Aden, US intelligence officials hasten to downplay the phenomenon and suggest that little can be done to stop it. They further caution against a response that could endanger security of sailors, vessels and freight in the vicinity and insist that there is no relationship between the pirates and Al-Qaeda, terrorism or militant Islamism.
FAILED STATES: Governments that are incapable of exercising their sovereign duties within their borders are commonly termed “failed states”. They are states that no longer hold the monopoly on power inside the country due to the rise in the power and influence of political militias, warlords, drug barons and the like who have come to rival the central government in military power and, often, claims to legitimacy. The Crisis Research Centre at the London School of Economic Studies defines the failed state as “a condition of partial or total collapse resulting in the government’s inability to perform its essential developmental functions, to safeguard national security, to ensure the safety of individual citizens, and to impose its control over the territory within its borders.” The US- based Foreign Policy periodical produces an annual assessment of failed states which are so ranked on the basis of 12 criteria. Two of these criteria are the existence of a state within the state and the rise of political or military elites that permit intervention of other countries and their direct impact on the policies and decisions of the state. A large body of political and scholastic lore has accumulated in the West on the “failed state”, its potential threat to international peace and security, and its relationship to global terrorism. Quite often studies, political commentaries and official rhetoric in this vein are a precursor to a country’s entrance onto the list of “failed states”, which, in turn, is preliminary to systematic attempts to meddle in its domestic affairs. These can range from teams of “advisors” to the imposition of an international mandate backed by international forces and military experts to train loyal local forces, to outright military occupation.
To conclude, the international conflict over the Bab Al-Mandeb area will claim Yemen as a victim with the Arab world in tow. Given that Eritrea has handed over a part of its coast to the Israeli s, that chaos and destruction have devoured Somalia and that Israel may be behind the pirates, the US, Israel and their allies will be the first to benefit, regardless of whether the chaos continues or is brought under control and channelled to their advantage. In addition, Israel also has a presence on Yemeni land within the framework of the role accorded to it through the agreement to fight terrorism and maritime arms smuggling signed by the US and Israeli foreign ministers in January 2009.
“Internationalisation” has become the capitalist world’s recipe for penetrating and recolonising Third World countries in the 21st century. It is certainly Israel ‘s recipe for securing an active part in the crises flaring up in the region and guaranteeing the complete freedom of its warships and submarines in the waters stretching from Eilat to the Gulf of Aden and perhaps beyond. Israel has succeeded in establishing itself as a regional power in the post-Cold War period and part of this drive has entailed supplanting Arab control over the strategic landmarks and maritime routes in the Bab Al-Mandeb region.