Yemen 'cannot contain al-Qa'ida'

Donald Macintyre ventures into the new stronghold of extremism – and finds out why the battle against terror is failing
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The Independent Online

The governor of a key province in the front line of Yemen's struggle against al- Qa'ida has admitted that the government's control in his area is "not strong", and says that no extra troops have been deployed there despite official suggestions that the threat of al-Qa'ida is being contained with a new crackdown by Yemeni forces.

As Yemen faces mounting US and international pressure to combat the use of the country as the new base for al-Qa'ida in the Arabian peninsula, the governor of Abyan province, one of the southern provinces seen as al-Qa'ida strongholds, said "truthfully and honestly, it [government control] is not so strong". Ahmed Bin Ahmed al-Misri, who said the threat from al-Qa'ida in the mountain regions of his province had grown in the last six months, added: "There are not enough weapons, there are not enough soldiers."

The difficulties faced by Abyan's most senior official provide a rare insight into the problems in conducting the so-called "war on terror" in a relatively remote, rugged and undeveloped country where deep poverty, tribalism and religious conservatism allow radical influences to flourish.

Despite reports from Sana'a, the capital, that Yemen is currently moving reinforcements into areas like Abyan in a new crackdown on the resurgent militants, the governor said he had seen no sign of it.

There had, he said, been redeployments of troops from Abyan to the Marib governate and vice versa. But, in an office guarded by soldiers with AK-47s and crowded with lieutenants and allies including a uniformed army brigadier, he added: "There are no new troops, no new army." The governor said he lacked helicopters needed to pursue militants if there was an incident outside the capital.

Mr al-Misri went out of his way to stress that "social development" help from the international community was urgently needed for his country, the poorest in the Arab world. Airstrikes and military force were not the "solution", he added. "We need more help to get the tribes to kick them [al-Qai'da] out. The government does not have the resources to do that."

Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, seems calm for now. Instead of sitting in the back of his official SUV between bodyguards, the governor, who is known to be tough, took the wheel himself, ahead of a security convoy of one police car and two army pickups carrying soldiers.

The problems he faces now, after what he sees as an acceleration in the growth of al-Qa'ida over the last six months, embody the daunting bundle of military, political and economic contradictions that will have to be considered by the conference on Yemen that Gordon Brown has convened in London for the end of the month.

It was in the Abyan mountain village of Al Majaala that a lethal air strike on al-Qa'ida was launched on 17 December. The assault had the "good effect", Mr al-Misri said, of killing, according to his own figures, 14 al-Qa'ida militants, including Muhammed al-Kazemi, a prominent local leader obliged to return to Yemen from Saudi Arabia by Riyadh's heavy crackdown last year. But it had the "bad effect" of also killing 45 civilians, including 18 women and children. And the governor is frustrated that central authorities in Sana'a have yet to follow his own example by giving an official apology for the non-combatant deaths. "It is not necessary for the President to do it himself," he said. "But if he did make condolences and apologies to the people it would be wonderful."

His sub-governor for the area, Yisham Abu Sit, who found just five survivors in the little encampment of tents and stone buildings when he arrived at the scene, admits they have have since used the strike as a warning to Bedouin tribesmen not to harbour al-Qa'ida militants.

But Mr al-Misri is convinced of the negative impact of the civilian deaths. He refuses to comment on whether he was given advance warning of the Yemeni airforce strike, which he believes is likely to have had American help. But he declares "If we in the authorities do not give apologies for [the civilian deaths] for sure the people will close their eyes to al-Qa'ida."

It takes a high-speed, hour-long drive from neighbouring Aden, and a local police escort to get us through three big military checkpoints on the desert coastal road, to reach Mr al- Misri's heavily guarded villa on the outskirts of this city of 100,000 people.

But while the job comes with a residence and garden rich in banana plants and flowering desert shrubs, and an – albeit empty – swimming pool behind its steel gates, the governor now wonders wryly whether he was right to take the job two years ago before outlining the national and international help he believes he needs.

Saying the jobless toll in Abyan is 50 per cent, compared with an estimated national average of 40 per cent, in a country where 45 per cent live on less than $2 a day, he describes how al-Qa'ida adherents insert themselves into local tribes, often nomads who do not see TV and know little of the movement's existence. First, he asserts, a member who belongs to the particular tribe will introduce others who will bring financial and practical help – like the digging of water wells – to the local community.

"Say the government is paying someone $50, they will pay $100. At the same time al-Qa'ida Islamic "scholars" will "collect" some of the tribe's young people, jobless and naturally religious, to begin "training", while also providing them with occasional financial help. Mr al-Misri says he cannot tell how many adherents it has but adds: "they are growing because the environment in Abyan helps the groups to grow because of the economic and employment problems."

Only a fraction of pledged Western aid has been disbursed because of serious corruption and capacity problems in Yemen's government, with the result that per capita development aid is significantly below that of some poor African countries.

The difficulties for Mr al-Misri, who would certainly not want US forces in his province, are compounded because he is fighting on two fronts, that of al-Qa'ida and, the – in his view – "equal" threat posed by southern secessionists seeking an independent South Yemen.

One of the movement's leaders, Tareq al-Fadhli, a former jihadist who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan and a former ally of President Saleh is confined to his home, a substantial greyish-white building in the centre of Zinjibar, pockmarked with gunfire after armed clashes between police and demonstrators which left more than a dozen people dead last July.

While much of the movement – including secular socialists – is committed to peaceful campaigning, government officials say that some groups have set up roadblocks, attacked government offices and stolen cars, and that Mr al-Fadhli's own supporters are armed with AK- 47s and RPGs. The governor said that although "we were within metres of arresting" Mr al-Fadhli last August, the operation had been halted on the orders of Rashid al-Alimi, Yemen's Deputy Prime Minister for Defence and Security.

Though a prominent member of President Saleh's ruling party, Mr al- Misri did not challenge complaints that southern governates like his own were receiving less central funding from the capital Sana'a than others. He also warned that while precision bombing of al-Qa'ida targets would not increase support for the secessionists, "mistakes" which killed civilians would. Asked if overall he felt his hands tied, he declared: "That's true but we are trying as we can."

Mr al-Misri strongly denied that there are any parts of his governate where he cannot personally go, saying that he was "one of the people", coming himself from a strong Bedouin tribe. But the main point of his guided tour yesterday was the central-government funded, $70m, 20,000-seat football stadium being built outside the city to Fifa standards after the boldly optimistic designation of Yemen as the host of next November's Gulf Co-operation Council annual tournament.

Tareq al Fadhli: Yemen's most wanted

Tareq Al Fadhli, who says he met Osama bin Laden twice in the late Eighties, said yesterday he tried to broker a deal early last year with Yemen's President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, which would have ended al-Qa'ida's presence in the country.

Mr al Fadhli is a wanted separatist, under house arrest in Zinjibar. He said the attempted deal was aborted because al-Qa'ida believed he was acting as part of the Yemen "authority" – even after he persuaded the President to release 130 al-Qa'ida prisoners as a token of good faith.

But while the member of the South Yemen family who were Sultans in Abyan under British rule agreed to help broker the al-Qa'ida deal, he says he was convinced by a meeting of former "mujahedin" with the President to join the southern secessionists rather than help the government's struggle against them as Mr Saleh had hoped.

Mr al Fadhli was used by the Yemeni President in the 1994 civil war against the south but has now reversed his stance. Some secessionists have hinted they believe he may not have wholly severed his connection with the Yemen President. Some Yemen officials claim he is a former member of al-Qa'ida who may still enjoy links with the organisation. Yesterday he denied he had ever been in al-Qa'ida, saying it was not even formed when he met Bin Laden. "I was 17 when I went to Afghanistan and 20 when I left it," he added. He insisted he preferred a peaceful struggle but would not rule out armed resistance "if we do not achieve our target peacefully". He said the movement wanted US and British help in building a democratic independent state.