Editorâ€™s Note: Reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect accused of trying to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day, was trained in Yemen have raised the specter of further U.S. military involvement in that country. To get a better sense of whatâ€™s going on in Yemen, NAM editor Aaron Glantz spoke with Jillian Schwedler, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, â€œFaith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.â€
A security personnel stands behind a machinegun installed on a vehicle in Sanaa January 6, 2010. Yemeni forces surrounded a suspected al Qaeda regional leader near the capital on Wednesday and captured three militants wounded in a raid, security sources said. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, was thrust into the foreground of the U.S.-led war against Islamist militants after a Yemen-based wing of al Qaeda said it was behind a Christmas Day attempt to bomb a U.S.-bound plane.
What was your first reaction when you heard that Abdulmutallab was trained in Yemen?
Yemen has fairly porous borders and a lot of people are in and out of there. It doesnâ€™t necessarily mean anything. Itâ€™s not like going to a camp in Afghanistan. It doesnâ€™t have the same meaning. I mean, you go to a camp in Afghanistan, youâ€™re pretty much going for one reason. Itâ€™s not the same as Yemen.
It seems like in the popular discussion, Yemen is becoming associated with fundamentalist clerics and terrorism.
There are definitely a lot of extremists there, but I think the bigger framework to think about Yemen is not as a hotbed of radicalism and terror but as a state where the government does not control all of the land. Theyâ€™ve been fighting a significant insurgency in the North for six years now and thereâ€™s a separatist group in the South thatâ€™s in an armed conflict. The Ministry of Interior estimates that there are 60 million weapons outside of government hands in Yemen. And thatâ€™s in a country of 20 million people. So itâ€™s a highly-armed, fragmented society and the government hasnâ€™t really had control over the entire country for some time, if ever. So certainly thereâ€™s extremism there, but thereâ€™s a lot of stuff going on that the government isnâ€™t really in control of.
So who is in the leadership of the government of Yemen?
The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is essentially a central government, but there are many parts of the country that are not under the central government. There are armed areas that the government doesnâ€™t police and doesnâ€™t have anything to do with, except to offer very limited services. And weâ€™re talking about big chunks of the country in the North and the East particularly. Itâ€™s not one little enclave.
And a huge part of the border with Saudi Arabia is not even defined because itâ€™s a desert. There are not a lot of people there but there are chunks of the country that are frontier-land kind of areas where people move between those two states.
Yemen was two countries during the Cold War.
Even calling it two countries becomes sort of a fiction. For years, it was just sort of a bunch of enclaves including the British colony that was there for nearly 100 years in the South, various tribal governments, there was a Northern government. But from the â€˜60s, you had two states, a Northern state which was the Yemen Arab Republic, and the Southern state which was the Peopleâ€™s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was a Marxist, Soviet outpost. And so when the Soviet Union fell in 1989, they lost all their funding and then North Yemen was never particularly strong, and so the two decided that they would unite, which they did and initially had democratic elections in which nobody won a majority.
Northern loyalists were assassinating socialists in the South and the unification never really went forward. They unified the country formally, but former governments maintained their owned armies. That culminated in a civil war in 1994 that lasted two months. And the North defeated the South and has been in control ever since under the leadership of the same president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
So itâ€™s really become an Egypt-style government where thereâ€™s a president who pretends to be elected and everyone else pretends to have candidates.
So during all this time, what has the U.S. governmentâ€™s role been?
Well, right after Yemen unified in May 1990, Yemen had the unfortunate opportunity to have a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council. So they had the seat during the first Gulf War in 1991 and they abstained from that Security Council vote. They did not vote for the coalition in 1990 and they did not vote against it; they abstained. So the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all punished Yemen by unilaterally cutting all aid to the country. So it was a newly-unified country that had a tremendous amount of aid cut. Millions of Yemeni migrant workers in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were all deported and that had a devastating affect on the economy in Yemen.
But then relations gradually improved, with the U.S. not really having an interest in Yemen. Then, with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and subsequent events, the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh has been working very closely with the U.S. government because in some ways these Islamists are threatening to him as well. That said, thereâ€™s an Islamist party thatâ€™s closely aligned with the regime. So while the government is working with the U.S. to battle extremists, at the same time heâ€™s playing this delicate balancing act that includes allying himself with extremists.
So basically, heâ€™s allying himself with the United States in the war on terror, and with the people who are opposing that at the same time.
Exactly. And I donâ€™t think heâ€™s that brilliant as a politician. Itâ€™s just luck that itâ€™s all held together at this point. Itâ€™s surprising to me that heâ€™s pulling it off. A lot of people think it could get really bad there really quick.
Already, the Fullbright program has been suspended. People arenâ€™t going there to study or do research. Itâ€™s really not safe.
So when youâ€™re watching the news right now, what are you looking for? What are you looking for in these reports that will help you decide whatâ€™s going on?
In so much of whatâ€™s coming through, I hear mistakes in reports that frustrate me. What I want to know is: Are things realigning? Are new people coming on top? I havenâ€™t seen this in the media, but for example: Saudi Arabia would have a clear interest in Yemen not becoming a failed state. So is Saudi Arabia sending more government and trying to bolster them and is that creating more Wahabi influence? Or this: Are you seeing a lot of the tribal sheiks realigning themselves? Because with that many weapons out of government control a few significant shifts in alignment could be game changers. Those are the kinds of things Iâ€™m interested in, but you donâ€™t tend to see them in media a lot.
Jillian Schwedler is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of the book, â€œFaith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen.â€