Washington’s New Terror War Flashpoint?
by Mohamed Al-Azaki
MARIB, Yemen – “After the Spaniards, who will be next to die in this vibrant, ‘living museum,’ as Yemenis call their country?” So asked one member of a group of Italian tourists leaving Yemen after the horrible attack.
It is a dreadful question after the al-Qaeda car bomb attack detonated near the Sun Temple archeological site in Marib province, some 150 km east of the capital Sana’a, killing eight Spanish tourists and two Yemenis on July 2.
There have been no arrests in the case, and a $76,000 reward offered by President Ali Abdullah Saleh for any information about those responsible for the attack is still valid. Exactly one month after the attack, Yemen’s Interior Ministry published photographs of 10 men it said were involved in the attack.
The photographs of the suspects appeared in the military newspaper 26 September, which reported that the Interior Ministry identified the bomber as Abdo Saad Rahiqa—who is said to have carried out the attack with the help of five Yemenis, a Saudi Arabian and an Egyptian national.
“It was almost a revenge story for the killing of their senior al-Qaeda operative, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harthi,” says a security official in Marib, who declined to provide any further details because of the sensitivity of the situation. Al-Harthi was a suspect in the USS Cole bombing that his car was attacked in Marib by a Hellfire missile launched from an unmanned Predator drone in November 2002
Yemen’s oil and gas industry—tiny by global standards but the source of two thirds of Yemen’s GDP—was also attacked last September. The attacks on the state-owned refinery at Safer in Marib, and Canadian-owned storage facility at Athubah in Hadhramout, left a security guard and the four attackers dead.
An al-Qaeda message at the time of the attacks warned that they were “only the first spark” and that future operations would be “severe and bitter.” Now it has turned its sights on the tourism industry, the second arm of the national economy and the source of a third of Yemen’s GDP.
“Al-Qaeda group vows to turn Yemen into a ‘quagmire’ for the West and US in particular, due to the Yemen’s alliance with the US-led war on terrorism that targeted Islam, as they see it,” says Abdul-Elah Shayiee, Yemeni specialist in terrorism affairs at the state-owned SABA news agency.
Could Yemen follow on the heels of Afghanistan and Iraq as the third major venue in the war on terrorism?
Thirty-six suspects are on trial in the capital Sana’a, accused of forming an “al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula-Yemen.” Accused of involvement in the oil facility attacks, they have pleaded not guilty, saying they were tortured by security forces and forced to sign false confessions.
This swathe of ancient Arabia—a magical mix of green mountains and deserts and cloud-high villages where time often seems to stand still—has become a “living museum” where tourists are escorted by soldiers dressed in white robes, combat jackets and checkered head clothes. They often demand tourists give them money for buying qat—“hag-al-qat” in Yemeni dialect—a mildly narcotic leaf which is chewed by the majority of Yemeni adults near the end of every day across the country.
Travel roads are dotted with checkpoints controlled by soldiers—or by tribesmen with a proclivity for abducting foreigners to pressure the government into providing better services or to secure the release of jailed relatives. Usually hostages are treated like honored guests and released unharmed, but in 1998, four Westerners were killed during a botched rescue attempt.
A former German government minister, his wife and three children were kidnapped in Yemen in December 2005. Five Italian tourists were kidnapped in Yemen in January 2006 and then released. In all these cases, the hostages were released unharmed. But even a very short news story on the abducting of Western tourists in Yemen is enough to erase the efforts of several years of investment and tourism promotions.
Extreme patience is required for a tour outside the capital to Marib, the most important archeological zone, where the Queen of Sheba once ruled over an empire of myrrh and frankincense. Tribes in Marib have had a strained relationship with central government for decades.
The local economy has suffered since the July attacks. “Everything went upside down,” says Ahmed Salim, owner of a tourism company in Marib. “Tourism is the backbone of economy here, but the challenge is how to get the trust of tourists over again.”
Yemen has been trying to make the Queen of Sheba temple, known for its imposing columns marking the entrance, a major tourist attraction following its recent renovation.
Yemen is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world, its locales referenced in the Old Testament and Koran. According to Yemen’s folklore, Sana’a was built by the eldest son of Prophet Noah, Shem or Sam in Arabic; it may also have been the town of Azal referenced in the book of Zechariah. To this day, Sana’a is locally nicknamed “Sam City.”
About 150 kilometers east of Sana’a, Marib was the capital of Sheba, or Saba, the mightiest kingdom of ancient Arabia, and the most famous archaeological site in modern Yemen. Islam’s holy book, the Koran, in a chapter called “The City of Saba,” describes the Sheba kingdom this way: “There was indeed a sign for Sheba in their dwelling place: Two gardens on the right hand and the left (as who should say): Eat of the provision of your Lord and render thanks to Him. A fair land and an indulgent Lord!” (Surah 34:15)
The Bible talks about a visit made by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem, where she took with her camels bearing spices, gold and precious stones. “Never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon,” according to 1 Kings 10.
In Old Marib, now deserted on top of a small hill, mud-brick buildings built by local tribespeople sit among the remains of the ancient city. A few kilometers away are the remnants of the throne and Mahram Bilqis (Temple of Bilqis)—Bilqis being the name given to the Queen of Saba in the later stories in the Islamic tradition. Not far away lies what remains of the famous old dam of Bilqis, which was built in the 8th century BC and stood for well over 1,000 years.
But uncomfortable relations between the government and the Marib tribes on one hand, and al-Qaeda’s deadly threats on the other stand as a barrier against the exploitation of these wonders.
Marib, home to four powerful tribes with more than 70 branches, has earned a reputation for being lawless—and, more recently, a hotbed of support for al-Qaeda and related militant networks.
“In Marib, the hotels are not the perfect places to relax,” says one of soldiers in yellow and brown camouflage fatiguestationed at the gate of a main hotel. “If the hotel was left unguarded, tribesmen could easily grab tourists from their beds, or maybe al-Qaeda comes to blow it up.”
Mohamed Al-Azaki is a Yemeni independent journalist and researcher on Islamic militants at the Saba Center for Political and Strategic Studies based in Sana’a, Yemen.
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Reuters, March 4, 2007
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