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Posted By Trends On July 15, 2008 @ 9:48 am In Special Report | No Comments
At about 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2006, 23 jihadi prisoners held in the basement of the maximum-security prison on the edge of Sana’a began crawling through a 140-meter tunnel leading to the women’s restroom in the al-Awfaq Mosque. From there, they melted away in the pre-dawn light before the muezzin could call the faithful to the day’s first prayer.
There were 17 hardened al-Qaeda veterans in the group, some from the cells that carried out suicide bombings on the USS Cole in October 2000 and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002. The breakout was seen as a huge victory for the jihadis, who had been on the ropes in Yemen since late 2003. With the jailbreak from a prison run by the Political Security Organization (PSO), Yemen’s main intelligence unit, which answers directly to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a four-and-a-half-year counter-insurgency effort by the Americans in Yemen went down the drain. Today, most of the jihadis remain at large, and the investigation into the Cole bombing has unraveled.
New in Yemen. More importantly, the young al-Qaeda firebrands who escaped soon usurped the older generation of jihadis. Now that they’re at the helm of the organization in Yemen, they unleashed a fresh campaign in mid-2007. And they’re gathering momentum.
Yemen’s new jihadi supremo is Nasir Abdel Karim al-Wuhayshi, one of the leaders of the Great Escape. He has accused the older generation of jihadis of cutting deals with Saleh’s regime, to refrain from attacking the government in exchange for turning a blind eye to their activities. “This no-holds-barred ap-proach is a relatively new one in Yemen, where negotiation and compromise are much more common methods,” says Gregory Johnson, a Yemen expert with the Jamestown Foundation, an American think-tank that studies terrorism.
Wuhayshi has declared that jihad is a duty that God has made incumbent, reasoning that Johnson says “leaves no room for negotiation. … Under his leadership, al-Qaeda in Yemen has become more strident, better organized and more ambitious than it has ever been in years.”
This generation of younger veterans is infinitely more dangerous than its predecessors. One of its first operations was an act of vengeance that delivered a bloody message to the Sana’a regime. On March 29 of last year, they assassinated Ali Mahmud Qasaylah, the intelligence chief in Marib province east of Sana’a, an Islamist stronghold.
Upping the tempo. Qasaylah headed security operations against al-Qaeda, and he was supposedly killed to avenge the assassination of the organization’s first leader in Yemen, Abu Ali al-Harithi. In November 2002, al-Harithi was killed with five other jihadis in an attack on his car in the Marib desert, by a missile-armed Predator drone controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Over the last year, Yemeni author-ities claim to have foiled several plots against Americans in Sana’a, while the tempo of actual attacks has accelerated alarmingly. For example:
• July 2, 2007: Eight Spanish tourists and two Yemeni drivers were killed in a suicide car bombing of their convoy in Marib governate, near a temple dating back to the time of the Queen of Sheba.
• Jan. 18, 2008: Two Belgian tourists and two Yemeni guides were shot dead in eastern Yemen.
• March 18: The heavily guarded American Embassy in downtown Sana’a, a frequent jihadi target since 1988, was mortared, killing a police officer. One round hit a nearby girls’ school in the Sawan district, wounding eight pupils.
• March 27: An oil pipeline operated by the French oil company Total was bombed in Hadramaut. Two days later, an oilfield run by a Chinese company was attacked there. These followed two foiled suicide attacks on major oil and gas installations in September 2006. The new al-Qaeda has clearly made Yemen’s energy industry, which produces three-quarters of the national budget, a priority.
• April 6: Jihadis rocketed a Sana’a compound housing American oil workers. The following day, the State Department ordered all non-essential staff and their families to leave Yemen.
• April 16: Three Yemeni soldiers were killed in a bombing at a Marib checkpoint near where the Spanish tourists were slaughtered.
Yemenis have been a key component of al-Qaeda since it was founded in 1998, and bin Laden considers Yemen an important base. Michael Scheuer, who headed the Central Intelligence Agency unit charged with tracking bin Laden before resigning in 2004, notes that the al-Qaeda leader and his strategists have “always valued what they refer to as ‘the strategic depth’ that Yemen affords.”
Scheuer says Yemen provides al-Qaeda with “a pivotal, central base that links its theaters of operation in Afghan-istan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, East Africa and the Far East. It also provides a base for training Yemeni [and other] fighters … and refit of fighters from multiple Islam-ist groups after their tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.”
People often forget that the first attack bin Laden launched against the West occurred in the southern port city of Aden in 1992. His men bombed a hotel used by American Marines deployed in neighboring Somalia. And bin Laden’s family comes from Hadramaut, a deeply conservative Sunni area.
Jihadi infiltration. Western intelligence agencies attest that Yemen’s military and security services are riddled with al-Qaeda activists or sympathizers, as is the army and many government branches. The 2006 breakout was widely seen by the Americans, who are constantly sty-mied by Saleh’s ambiguous policies, as “an inside job” carried out with PSO personnel and Islamist sympathizers.
If that was indeed the case – and it fits the pattern of regime complicity that has emerged over the years – it would seem to have backfired on Saleh. The hardcore jihadis who led the breakout are now clearly prepared to challenge him on his own doorstep unless he plays ball.
In the face of heavy pressure from Washington, Saleh has dismissed some PSO officials. But diplomatic sources in Sana’a say that has only happened at the “lowest levels.” According to Kamran Bokhari, a specialist on jihadi terrorism with the Texas-based intelligence consultancy Strategic Forecasting, none of the Muslim states that employed jihadis to achieve policy objectives in the late-1970s and 1980s “has been able to quit the relationship and remain unscathed.”
“For various reasons, the once-symbiotic relationship between the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and their jihadi proxies have turned adversarial,” Bokhari continues, “while in Syria’s case the storm is brewing. The jihadis have come back to bite the hand that fed them.”
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