Shi’ite Insurgency in Washington’s Strategic Red Sea Ally

by Mohamed Al-Azaki, WW4 REPORT

He heard the military helicopters coming, Dr. Ali al-Wadiee told reporters in Al-Ruzamat, a small village situated amid the volcanic mountains of Yemen’s remote north, near the border with Saudi Arabia.

“There were several loud explosions,” he said, but the doctor wasn’t aware of how many helicopters dropped their payloads in al-Naqa’ah, just on the Yemeni side of the border.

In Saada province, 240 kilometers north of the capital Sana’a, nearly 700 people have been killed as fighting re-ignited in late January between Yemen’s army and Zaidi Shiite insurgents. Formed by tribal chief and Zaidi cleric Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, killed in combat with government forces in 2004, the rebel group is known as al-Shabab al-Moumin (the Youthful Believers). Their rebellion has flared even as the government has started to pacify the Sunni insurgency elsewhere in the country. Earlier this year they threatened to kill members of the small Jewish community in Saada if they did not leave the country within 10 days.

Al-Wadiee was present in a small government medical center with four health workers, when more than 100 dead were received in a period of three days March 5-7. “About 90 of the dead were in the Yemeni army, and the others were in the Shiite insurgents,” he said.

At the outskirts of al-Ruzamat, some 10 kilometers south of al-Naqa’ah, in this same region of northern Yemen, a metal sign hanging from a shiny new chain reads: “Warning: Access to this area is forbidden for security reasons. The Yemeni Army.”

The current conflict represents the third government crackdown in Saada province since 2004, where the Shiite rebellion started out as a small protest movement. Rebel clerics have denounced the government’s ties with the United States and demanded an end to its gradual shift to Western-style social and democratic reforms.

Government forces seem to have emerged victorious from the latest fighting, having crushed the main rebel strongholds in the Razih and Al-Shagaf areas of Al-Naqa’ah. But Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, the new leader of the Shiite insurgency and brother of the slain founder, threatens to widen the circle of armed confrontations to areas outside of Saada. He is said to have hundreds of armed rebels under his command, and pledges to continue fighting the government if it doesn’t cut its alliance with America.

Just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia and astride the Red Sea’s strategic Bab-el-Mandeb choke-point, Yemen has received strong US military support for counter-terrorism programs in recent years. Al-Thawra, the government newspaper in Sana’a, reported on Sept. 26, 2006 that US Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski declared Washington’s support for the Yemeni government in its confrontation with al-Houthi’s insurgency.

The rebel group was formed three years ago, when Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi took up arms under the slogan: “God the Greatest… Death to America and Israel…Victory for Islam and Muslims.”

The government is determined to crush the uprising. But observers fear it may not be able to overcome al-Houthi’s group, which aims to install an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy and many compare to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

“They refused all offers by the government to disarm and form a political party to live in peace,” says Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor at Sana’a University. “I think the rebels have this time lost all grounds for negotiations with the government.” To isolate the rebels, says al-Faqih, Yemeni authorities have blocked communications including mobile phone services in the restive northern province.

There are also fears of renewed targeting of Western interests in the country. In March, the Interior Ministry temporarily tightened security around foreign embassies against possible terror attacks.

“Here in Yemen, tribe, religion and weapons are the most dangerous things in the hands of tribesmen against the government,” said Abdul-Elah Haidar, a researcher on terrorism issues at the Saba News Agency and a regular columnist for the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. “And when a group combines the three, it can easily become a substantial political force.”

Iran Seeking Proxies?

This escalation of violence has been a frightening setback for the Yemeni government, which had beat back the threats from al Qaeda and was beginning to benefit from the cautious return of tourists and foreign investors.

Lacking large oil reserves or any modern manufacturing facilities, Yemen has nonetheless drawn terrorist attacks: the September 2006 bombing of American- and French-owned oil facilities in the eastern provinces of Marib and Hadarmout; the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden; and the October 2002 bombing of the French supertanker Limburg. These have cost the government millions as insurance premiums for ship owners have soared, causing many of them to refuse to dock at Yemen’s ports.

The attacks have also frightened off thousands of mainly European tourists who come to admire the country’s unique ancient mud-brick cities and amazing landscape.

Most Yemenis believe that Iran backs the Shiite Muslim rebels in the north of the Sunni-dominated country. The Zaidi sect makes up about a fifth of the Yemen’s population. Also known as “Fiver Shia,” it is actually a small offshoot of the Ismaili schism. The Zaidis recognize only five imams from Imam Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, while the mainline Shia of Iran’s mullahs recognizes 12.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in January that some countries were supplying al-Houthi’s group with weapons and financial support, but did not name them.

Tariq al-Shami, spokesman for President Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), says Iranian security officials have told Yemen that some Iranian religious institutions were supporting the rebels, but they added that al-Houthi’s group was not backed by the Tehran government. “There are Iranian religious institutions which are providing support to the Shiite insurgency in Yemen,” Shami recently posited on the GPC’s Web site.

In March 2006, Yemen freed more than 600 Zaidi rebels as part of an amnesty to end two years of clashes that had killed several hundred soldiers and rebels alike. But “the Houthis have used a period of truce with the state to buy heavy weapons using foreign support money,” Shami charges.

The clashes in Saada are causing great hardship for the local inhabitants. “Many houses have already been destroyed, students no longer go to school, agricultural farms have been damaged and work has come to a standstill,” said Khalid al-Anesi, director of Yemen’s non-governmental National Organization for Defending Freedoms and Rights.

Military sources say that al-Houthi’s three-year fight against the government has cost the country an estimated $800 million, with extensive damage to property.

But the greatest threat is that the Shi’ite revolt could re-ignite conflicts among other sectors of the populace. Many in Yemen refuse to operate within a political system that they see as invalid, says Haidar, leaving the potential for factional warfare. “Al-Houthi’s group is trying to copy Iraq’s sectarian strife in Yemen,” he warns.

Jihad Materials Thrive in Markets

Sunni Muslims are a majority in Yemen, a nation of 19 million, and it is the ancestral homeland of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. It is radical Sunnis who are circulating gruesome videos depicting murdering and mutilating “infidels” as part of a recruiting drive.

At one roadside stand, a video salesman hawked jihadi movies as radical songs blared out from speakers, with such lyrics as: “We will make jihad against the pigs”—meaning Jews.

The long-bearded buyers thronging his stall on the sidelines of a sunset prayer’s sermon in the Yemeni capital Sana’a were part of a gathering organized by the radical Sunni wing of the Yemen Reform Group, also known as Islah, a powerful opposition party.

“Here is the latest movie of the beheadings,” the salesman told his customers, as they peered into titles including “Slaughter of American Soldiers in Iraq,” “Al Qaeda Victories in Fallujah in Iraq” and “Killing of Traitors in Afghanistan.”

In Yemen, compelled to join the US-led global war on terrorism after 9-11, anger has risen over what many clerics see as an attempt by the America and the West to repress Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

But that is only part of the story. Yemen also faces a battle with its own demons, as militant attacks and sectarian violence have killed thousands since 9-11.

On March 26, four people were injured in a riot in the Yemeni port city of Belhaf, allegedly after a French engineer from the Total oil company desecrated a copy of the Koran by throwing it on the floor.

That same day, at the other north end of the country in restive Saada, a French and a British student, both Muslims, were killed and several others wounded in an attack by Shi’ite rebels on a Sunni religious school.

Yemen has come under increasing pressure from the US to take harsher action against the illicit trade in weapons, with experts warning the country is becoming a key transfer point for militant groups throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

Mohammed Kuhaly, political analyst and lead researcher of the local NGO Political Development Program, says there is “no haze or cloudiness” about who the figures are behind the booming arms traffic. “They are al-Qaeda’s sympathizers of the political Islamist Islah party.”

President Saleh has banned several radical religious schools linked to Islah. But militant literature—even how-to manuals on guerilla war—continue to be widely available. One Islamist bookshop owner in Sana’a said such material could always be arranged to trusted customers.

It is certainly not difficult to find the words of one of Yemen’s most radical voices. His message of extremist Islam can be heard outside a number of well-known mosques.

Sheikh Hazza Al-Maswary, a key representative of the Islah party, has kept a low profile recently because of pressure from Yemen’s security apparatus, despite having a seat in the national parliament. But outside Mujahid mosque in Sana’a, his recorded voice blares out from speakers among the shops selling perfumes, head caps, religious books, cassettes and films after Friday prayers.

“Curse on the Christian Americans and Jews… They are killers, and we will make jihad against them, we will rob them of their peace,” legislator Al-Maswary thunders. “Muslims must not follow the Christians and Jews, as God says he will not accept anyone but Muslims.”

Not all Yemeni preachers are spreading messages of jihad. Some are actively opposing radicalism among their followers. Many exert efforts to bring a negotiated end to armed tribal conflicts, and help to bring a measure of peace to restive areas.

Yemen’s Sunni insurgency in the remote interior provinces of Abyan and Marib opened in late 2001, when tribal leaders refused to hand al-Qaeda suspects over to the government. President Bush subsequently ordered some 200 military advisors to the country, and in November 2002 a CIA drone-launched missile attack killed six al-Qaeda suspects traveling in a car in Marib. Since then the insurgency has died out, but observers now fear the new Shi’ite militancy may upset the fragile political balance, and bring sectarian war to this mountainous and strategic Arab country.

Mohamed Al-Azaki is an independent Yemeni journalist and researcher at the SABA Center for Strategic Studies, based in Sana’a.

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