As a fragile ceasefire takes hold in the north, an alleged al-Qaida strike has raised fresh questions concerning Yemen’s pursuit of nuclear energy.
By Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (09/07/07)
A recent attack on tourists near the Yemeni town of Marib underlines the ongoing threat posed by al-Qaida and tribal violence to stability and raises questions concerning the country’s nuclear pretensions.
The suicide bombing was the latest in a series of purported al-Qaida attacks and comes amid efforts to cement a fragile ceasefire to end the third Shia rebellion in the north since 2004, and as protests grow against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s autocratic rule.
Saleh has retained a tight grip on the country since the 1994 civil war and is a close regional ally of the US. Last year he reversed an earlier decision to step down, retaining the presidency with 77.2 percent of the vote in a September ballot.
During the election campaign, Saleh announced that should he win, Yemen would be pushing ahead with plans to develop a nuclear energy capacity – viewed by most analysts as a response to wider regional concerns regarding Iranian nuclear development.
Al-Qaida-affiliated or inspired groups have appeared to maintain a significant presence among Yemen’s Sunni communities in recent years, with some analysts accusing the government of reaching secret accords with group leaders. Others emphasize the primarily domestic concerns of most Sunni fundamentalist groups.
Seven Spanish tourists and two locals died in the 2 July Marib suicide bombing, making it the deadliest attack on foreign nationals in the country since the 2000 al-Qaida bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor.
“It is very hard to pin down al-Qaida” involvement in such attacks, Yemen Observer editor Jennifer Steil told ISN Security Watch.
“What I have heard from diplomats, off the record, is that the government has a history of making deals with al-Qaida. And what they have done is they have allowed al-Qaida to operate training camps and to plot things in Yemen as long as they don’t carry out attacks in Yemen.”
Yemeni officials allege that an Egyptian national killed in a Thursday raid on a militant hideout in the capital Sana’a was the ringleader of the al-Qaida cell that carried out the Marib attack.
The bombing follows two foiled attacks on oil and gas facilities in 2006 and the February 2006 escape of 23 al-Qaida prisoners from a maximum security prison in Sana’a. There was also an al-Qaida-linked rebellion in Abyan Governate in 2003.
Dr Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert at the University of Richmond, Virginia, agreed that it was extremely hard to characterize the involvement of international al-Qaida in Yemen.
Asked if the regular clashes between tribal militants and government forces were primarily related to highly localized issues, Carapico told ISN Security Watch: “Almost always. Of course you can’t say that there is not some al-Qaida dug in there messing with it but, most of them, if you could research it, [you] would find that it is more about somebody’s land or water, or a road.”
The country’s Western allies agree that an inability to integrate Yemen into the Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) could promote further instability on the country’s border with Saudi Arabia while encouraging the burgeoning of Iranian influence amongst Yemen’s Shia tribes.
Qatar recently brokered a ceasefire agreement to bring an end to fighting between government forces and Shia al-Houthi, which seeks the establishment of an imamate in the north.
Al-Houthi forces are concentrated in the northern city and governate of Sa’ada and are led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, whose brother Hussein headed the movement until his death in fighting against government forces in September 2004.
Yemeni Shia largely follow the Zaydi and Ismaili schools. The former builds its jurisprudence on the Sunni Hanafi school of Sharia. The al-Houthi are Zaydis.
Carapico explained that the spread of hard-line wahhabi tendencies into the Zaydis northern fiefdom from the 1980s led to conflicts between followers of the credos.
In the wake of the Marib attack, Saleh accused unnamed foreign interests of seeking to undermine the ceasefire agreement.
The father of the al-Houthi brothers, after whom Hussein is named, visited Iran in 1991 and in 2003 and is accused of fleeing to the Islamic Republic during the first al-Houthi rebellion in 2004.
There is no clear evidence of Iranian support for the al-Houthi rebellion, which does not enjoy the support of many Zaydis. Iran strongly denies any involvement.
Carapico opined that “at this stage any government in the region can blame Iran for anything” and in doing so is behaving “as a rational actor.”
“There is no way that Iran instigated” the al-Houthi rebellion, she said.
“Would Iran be funding this group or trying to support them in some way to influence this outpost of Zaydism and have some influence in the peninsula, where they have very little? And would the rebels want to get whatever cash they can and whatever else from Iran? I guess so,” Carapico said.
“What I have heard from several diplomats is, “Yes, there is a little bit of help but it is not significant.” That even without help from Iran and Libya these rebels had all the arms they needed,” Steil said.
Under the terms of the current ceasefire, al-Houthi militants must hand over their weapons in return for an end to government operations, with the movement’s leaders to leave the country for an indeterminate period.
Sporadic attacks continued last week with al-Houthi fighters, unhappy with the agreement, attacking government positions and abducting two soldiers.
The recent violence comes amid escalating public protests.
Three separate demonstrations were held in Freedom Square in the capital Sana’a last Tuesday with students, press and health organizations and taxi drivers citing a variety of grievances ranging from the relaxation of restrictive press laws to prescription changes for kidney patients.
The protests follow the arrest and detention of a prominent government critic, the editor of Al-Shura Weekly, Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani, on what journalistic groups say are trumped up terror charges.
One of the groups participating in Thursday’s protests, Women Journalists Without Chains, recorded 67 violations of press freedoms, including physical assaults on journalists, in their 2006 annual report, up significantly from the year before.
Steil said of the civil protest movement, “It definitely seems to me to be growing. But I remember there have always been protests here. […] These protests for freedom of the press, we have had eight in a row now.”
Importantly, a demonstration was also held last week to protest the government’s refusal to allow NGOs and political activists to visit the area of the al-Houthi rebellion. “They should have let us cover the war but they didn’t, we were not allowed to cover Sa’ada at all, there was a total media blackout,” Steil explained.
While such protests remain small-scale, they are significant in signaling middle class disenchantment with the Saleh government.
“It’s not that they [protests] can threaten the government but I think they are a way of pushing the government to abide partly by its own rhetoric,” Carapico said.
Stagnation and integration
Yemen suffers from stagnant economic development, exacerbated by rampant corruption. It is the poor state of the Yemeni economy in relation to Gulf states that is the primary hurdle preventing integration into the GCC.
In an announcement that appeared to be an effort to shift the domestic focus from the al-Qaida attack, Saleh issued a decree on 3 July establishing a Higher National Committee for Fighting Corruption.
“Corruption is the biggest problem because it affects everything else. It affects security, the military, the coast guard, education.” Steil said. “They talk about it an awful lot. But from what I hear there is still an awful lot of it going on and not enough people have been kicked out of their posts,” she said.
There has been a significant increase in Yemeni participation in GCC meetings but, facing other challenges, Gulf states appear unwilling to assume the burden of propping up the failing Yemeni economy or to play a major cooperative role in conflict resolution.
The exception is Qatar, which charts its own course on foreign policy and, alongside its involvement in the al-Houthi ceasefire, has pledged the Saleh government US$500 million in aid and loans.
“Yemen has been applying for years [to join] the GCC,” Carapico noted. “Occasionally they let them come to a meeting as an observer but it [Yemen] is not the Gulf in any way. I think it’s much more symbolic than practical.”
Given the parlous state of the economy and a lack of technological and knowledge-base development, a future link-in to the putative GCC nuclear program will be crucial for the realization of current Yemeni plans for atomic generation.
Saleh discussed nuclear power with French authorities during a trip to Paris in late June, visiting a reactor and promising his hosts that Yemen would provide facilities and other inducements in return for French investment in electricity generation.
The, chairman of the National Atomic Energy Commission of Yemen, Mustafa Bahran, who serves as the science and technology advisor to the president, has told reporters that Yemen would start work on producing nuclear energy by the end of 2007.
In the first stage, a foreign company would build reactors capable of providing 20,000MW of generation capacity. Atomic research and the training of technicians and scientists are reportedly underway while a short-list of three potential sites for the first 1,000MW reactor has been drawn up.
In 2005, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reportedly provided US$1 million in funding for the training of Yemeni security officers and customs officials in detecting radioactive and nuclear materials – a sign that the focus of international concerns and funding will be on nuclear smuggling rather than generation.
Given al-Qaida attacks on oil and gas plants the potential appears to exist for the targeting of future atomic facilities.
“It just is not realistic for Yemen. We do not have the security in place for nuclear technology and we don’t know where we are going to put radioactive waste.”
According to Carapico, “There is a difference between the will and the capability. They may be serious in the sense that they would like to be the kind of strong, modern power that has nuclear energy, but they are not.”