Forget the gunboats - it's time for good old-fashioned diplomacy

We must live with the consequences of giving fundamentalism a foothold in strategically vital Yemen
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The Independent Culture
A MONTH ago, Yemen was just the mysterious Arabia Felix where they built houses on top of rocks, chewed qat through the long hot afternoons and produced the odd unsettling, but distant coup. Now, events at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula have interposed themselves rudely on Robin Cook's torrid career. Instead of Britain accusing Middle East nationals of being party to terrorism, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of our own citizens being accused of plotting kidnappings and bombings in Yemen.

The trail of terror and confusion leads back, via the Internet, to the less exotic setting of Finsbury Park, from where Abu Hamza advertises his Islamic training camp with due regard for equal opportunities: "Special lectures for sisters regarding women and the role of women in the field of Jihad". His bark may be worse than his bite. We should be suspicious when so much attention is focused on a single loudmouth prepared to deliver soundbites about the need to avenge Anglo-American "state terrorism". Mr Hamza has been preaching his views in the Finsbury Park mosque for some time. I imagine that they are rather well known to MI5 and the counter- terrorism squad.

Free speech is always the democratic principle we are keenest to throw away when it is others who are to be silenced, not us. It might not be very nice of Mr Hamza to carry in his Internet site passages of Osama bin Laden's philosophy such as: "The walls of oppression cannot be demolished except in a hail of bullets," but one could not ban it without coming down on every other revolutionary group which believes in violent final conflict to resolve the class struggle, in the name of animal rights or to end repressive male hegemony. That has never proved an effective approach to stifling dissent.

Mr Hamza is not really the problem. More important is what his son (sought by the Yemeni authorities) and step-son (under arrest there) were doing there and how justified the Sana'a government is in its accusations against them. It would be a more rash person than I who would claim to know whether those detained are being fitted up by the Yemeni government or whether they are guilty of plotting the violence of which they are accused. The Foreign Office's dilemma is that it is exerting itself for people who may turn out to have been terrorists, many of whose supporters are no enthusiasts for Western freedoms.

As things stand, the accused are being held without charge and are being denied access to their lawyer, so Britain is duty-bound to help. I see no justification for the charge that Mr Cook has bungled things by delay, beyond a general desire to kick a politician when he is down. The pressure at such times is always to proceed with a bang and a rush - never to take things steadily.

But some situations defy haste. This one, which combines internal tribal feuds, the undigested aftermath of the unification of Yemen, the ill-feeling generated by Britain's participation in the Iraq bombing raids and the sensitivity in Sana'a about the bungled hostage-release, demands a lot of looking before the leap.

Some 10 years ago I spent a summer visiting diplomatic friends in Yemen, the most beautiful country I have ever seen. I have never been so hot as I was at the vast Marib damn, nor as exhilarated by the terraced mountain slopes, negotiated by heavily laden donkeys far more speedily than by our four-wheel vehicles.

Of fundamentalism, the only hint was being stoned by a crowd of women as a "Nazarene", having been foolish enough to stray into a religious area. The kidnapping of Westerners was an occasional inconvenience, politely conducted in order to extort roads and clean water from the government, swiftly concluded.

That was before the unification of Yemen. The Cold War imposed its brutal simplicities here as it had in other troubled parts of the globe. The north was pro-Western, the south the heart of the Soviet Union's sphere of influence in the Middle East, where the Russians and East Germans sought - hopelessly - to centralise control in a tribal land by seeking to restrict the days on which qat could be chewed.

After the Berlin Wall fell, the Sana'a government re-imported fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia in order to chase out the Marxists in the south. Unification was in vogue everywhere. The West supported integration, believing that it would increase stability in the region. But we were cavalier about the terms on which it happened.

Whether Western governments would have approved of Mr Hamza planting explosives on behalf of the mujahedin also is a matter of dates. Osama bin Laden was a useful tool against Western enemies at the time. The end of the Cold War meant a realignment of friends and enemies whose less ethical implications were forgotten in the general relief and triumphalism nicely parodied (except he meant it) in PJ O'Rourke's boast: "We kicked Commie ass."

The trouble is, we live now with the consequences of how we kicked Commie ass in Afghanistan - a country bleeding itself to death - and helped give fundamentalism a foothold in the strategically vital country of Yemen. Using the sword of Islam against the hammer and sickle was a high-risk policy and we pay the price today.

I have had my doubts about Mr Cook as Foreign Secretary. Mr Blair's lavish praise of his "superb" performance was rank hyperbole. But on Yemen, he has the opportunity to rehabilitate himself by showing that he can hold his nerve in a situation which can not be resolved by the more dramatic means of mercenaries or gun boats. This one needs good, old-fashioned diplomacy

At the mention of the words "British nationals", however, rampant irrationalism sets in. Already, those who wish to raise the temperature of an already tragic situation - with three Britons dead - are recommending Libyan embassy tactics. Apart from the practical objection that the prisoners are being held, inconveniently, in Aden and not in St James' Square, an all-out confrontation with the Yemeni authorities would simply play into the hands of Islamicists seeking to strengthen their grip on power.

Yesterday, Michael Howard compared the alleged tardiness of the Government in dealing with the prisoners in Yemen, with the stream of prisoner releases in Ulster. As the Conservatives support the Good Friday agreement, this was off-message even by their own standards.

More seriously, his attack on Mr Cook risked fuelling aggression among some of the prisoners' supporters towards the British government. It was a shameful performance, the worse for coming from an intelligent and experienced former minister who knows that there are times when the national interest demands that the Opposition behaves loyally in order not to make a dangerous situation worse. This is one of them.