Fault line that allows al-Qa'ida to flourish in Yemen

Two decades of unification have failed to heal a regional rivalry that has hindered the country's efforts to root out the extremists. Donald Macintyre reports from Aden

The devout and grave-faced men pouring out of prayers yesterday at the al Rihaab Mosque in Aden were at once keen to speak about their government, seven hours' drive to the north, and guarded in their choice of words.

But most left little doubt about the deep vein of discontent that runs through the port city the British left over 42 years ago. Yes, there was corruption, said Sami Samir, a 24-year-old support teacher. He added carefully that President Ali Abdullah Saleh is himself "good" but: "Under him the government is playing with the country. We need a government that is more democratic and keeps by the law."

Speaking in English learnt in his three years studying business and marketing in Slough, he added: "The northern tribes get the good jobs and good salaries and we don't."

A 40-year-old former regular soldier was blunter. "In the south we are living under injustice. We live as second- or third-class citizens." The south was "under occupation", the man claimed. He gave his name but even before he could be drawn on whether he supported the increasingly secessionist Southern Movement, said: "If someone is heard talking like this, he will go to prison."

There is nothing new about south-north hostility, of course. Aden still bears the marks of the long British presence: the storage bunkers built in the steep rock, the unmistakeably English church overlooking the port, the pillar boxes – now painted yellow – and the plaque on the old city gate commemorating the 1892-93 campaign of the 2nd Battalion, Welsh Borderers. But from Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez in 1967 until the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1990, North and communist-led South Yemen, with Aden as its capital, were two countries. Then it was unified and has remained so despite a north-south civil war in 1994.

But now Yemen's US-urged efforts to dislodge an apparently resurgent al-Qa'ida of the Arabian Peninsula from its bases in the country are being complicated by the sense of grievance in the south. For almost two decades it has felt itself a marginalised section of what is already the poorest country in the Arab world, seeing the Sana'a government as exploiting revenues from southern oil for the north and discriminating against southerners in public service jobs. The government, which is fighting a Shia rebellion in the north of the country, has been preoccupied, its critics charge, with combating the increasingly secessionist Southern Movement rather than dealing with the grievances that feed it.

At the same time, some opponents of both al-Qa'ida and the secessionists have attempted, with only limited success, to claim a link between the two, focusing in part on Tariq al-Fadhli, a former jihadist who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan – and was used by President Saleh in his fight against the communists in 1994 – and who has now become a prominent secessionist. Southern Movement spokesmen adamantly deny any connection, saying that the President tries to discredit the movement by planting fake al-Qa'ida adherents in it. Indeed, they argue that the government's belligerent stance towards the region's concerns can only strengthen al-Qa'ida.

An illustration of that stance can be found round the corner from this mosque in Crater, the old port district of Aden, at the headquarters, locked and pockmarked by gunfire, of Al Ayyam, the highly popular and fiercely independent Southern newspaper. Closed for six months during British rule, and then again through most of the communist period, it was closed again in May last year by the government, allegedly for inciting separatism. A series of demonstrations in its support culminated early this week in a stand-off between police, soldiers and 36 supporters in front of the building, which ended with a policeman and one of the office's security guards being killed, and the editor and owner of the paper, 66-year-old Hisham Bashraheel, arrested. He is still in police custody, triggering sharp protests from Reporters Without Borders. While the police say they took possession of arms from inside the building – not a surprise in this weapon-rich country – the Yemen Times this week quoted Mr Bashraheel as telling the journalists' organisation before his arrest that the battle had been started by security forces firing on demonstrators.

Two male members of the Bashraheel family – who live in the newspaper compound – underlined the tensions here when they walked from it yesterday towards their car. As qat-chewing policemen maintained a guard on the building, still fortified by sandbags, from 40m away, one of the editor's relatives said: "We can't say anything at the moment, you must understand that. You must wait."

But the paper's many supporters argue that rather than promote secession, Al Ayyam merely reports a wide range of political strands. "It is the only paper that speaks in the tongue of the people," says Hagea Ali al Jehafi, one of its currently laid-off journalists. The local deputy police chief, Colonel Rida abu Zeida, says wryly that some of the paper's articles "make you think that the last day is coming". But even he says that the "paper is loved by the local people" and that he and his colleagues are regular readers. The closure of the paper and the arrest of its editor appears to have perturbed the majority of yesterday's worshippers. "We are very upset about the situation at Al Ayyam," said one.

Aden was where al-Qa'ida launched its attack on USS Cole in 2000. And while Colonel Abu Zeida, 47 – who proudly shows the mark of his childhood smallpox vaccination under British rule – says initially that al-Qa'ida is not now an issue in Aden and that he is confident that local forces have the capacity to maintain security, he admits to being "worried" about the fact that the organisation's reported stronghold of Abiyan is only two hours away.

There was no evidence of any support for the organisation among those leaving al Rihaab Mosque yesterday. "It's a problem," said Mr Samir, "They give Europe and America a bad picture about Islam." But despite the fears that intelligence agents might have been listening in the small crowd that had gathered, there was no lack of the economic and political grievances which some analysts believe the extremists can exploit, especially among the young. "You cannot get a job and the cost of life is very high," Mr Samir added. He said he does not even personally seek secession. "I do not want separation," he adds, "but we need the government to be more democratic and we need an end to discrimination." One worshipper, Hussein Haddad, 60, says there was more "justice" under the British and that he does not rule out a repeat of the 1994 war.

"I don't like the government much but I do want Yemen to be one country." Muhammed Hussein, 40, a customs officer in the port, said. "But I do want the government to make the situation better."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Manager - SAS - Data Warehouse - Banking

£350 - £365 per day: Orgtel: Manager, SAS, Data Warehouse, Banking, Bristol - ...

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment