nnocent victims of a repressive Third World tyranny, or foot-soldiers of a vast Muslim terrorist conspiracy? These two stereotypes have both been applied to the eight Britons convicted of plotting armed attacks in Yemen last week. But the truth is, as always in a country that defies easy categorisation, much more complex than that.

Their trial was used by the Yemeni government to show that it was fighting the good fight against terrorism, but also as a weapon against its regional and internal enemies. Without knowing it, the young British Muslims stepped into a situation created by past British adventures, by American fears of terrorism and by Saudi Arabia's nervousness about a tough if poor nation on its southern border. The eight seem to have believed that they were there to side with fellow Muslims against Western imperialism and the forces of secularism in Yemen.

As in many Muslim countries, Islam has frequently been used in internal politics as a counterweight to secular or socialist forces. During the bloody civil war between North and South in 1994, leading Muslims from the South were an important part of the North's forces.

Afterwards some, like Abu Hassan, who led the Aden-Abyan Islamic army, felt that they had been insufficiently rewarded, and decided to strike back. It was through links to this group that the young Britons apparently came to travel to Yemen.

They picked a bad time. Last year the US started to move towards using Yemen as a strategic base. But it also feared that Yemen was being used as a base for regional subversion by Islamists, some of whom had returned from the war in Afghanistan.

In these fears it was prompted by Saudi Arabia, and by Egypt, which feared that the country would become a haven for opponents of the Cairo regime. Osama bin Laden, the man America blames for last year's African embassy bombings, has links to Yemen: his family came from the country, and groups linked to him had training bases there.

Yemen responded to the fears of the West by kicking out hundreds of people. Its government also badly needed Western support, so when a group of likely lads from Britain turned up on the Yemenis' doorstep, they were obvious scapegoats. Abu Hassan responded to their arrest by kidnapping a group of Westerners, some of whom died in a shoot-out with internal security forces. The government seems to have panicked, and that made a tough approach to the British prisoners even more likely.

Britain is still regarded as a regional mischief-maker and imperialist: after all, it fought a long covert war against Sana in the 1950s and 1960s; it had been the colonial power in Aden for 150 years; and it still houses the Yemeni opposition who fled the country after the civil war.

So the Yemeni government used the trial to show its seriousness in the war against terrorism, the influence of overseas forces and to hint at the wicked role of the British. As for these inexperienced young men, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and, like many Britons over the centuries who have risked their lives with adventures in southern Arabia, they were lucky to escape with their lives.