Geopolitics

Violence Returns To Yemen After Arab Spring Success

Old regime elements and al-Qaeda are both interested in fostering violence and widening instability as the Middle Eastern nation tries to stay on path to democracy.

A Yemeni soldier checks a car in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 6, 2014 — Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ZUMA
A Yemeni soldier checks a car in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 6, 2014 — Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ZUMA
François-Xavier Trégan

SANAA — With a movement of his hand, the soldier orders the driver to stop. Abdel Ghani Ali al-Waji complies and rolls down the window. The soldier points a flashlight at his face, casts a quick glance inside the car and gestures for him to move along.

"These check-points are useless," al-Waji grumbles. "They're always at the same spots, everybody knows where they are, and nobody will search a car occupied by women. And there aren't any police dogs to detect explosives."

For this man, who used to be chief of Sanaa’s detective unit, the army taking charge of the Yemeni capital’s security had no positive effect. "No neighborhood is safe these days. The police have even lost control of some of them, and they’re now open to criminals and terrorists," al-Waji says. "Coordination and communication are bad, it's really not very professional."

Indeed, in recent weeks, Sanaa has seen a sharp rise in violence. On May 9, five soldiers were killed in an unprecedented assault blamed on al-Qaeda against the Presidential Palace. The same day, a bomb killed 11 police officers near the British and Qatari embassies. Four days earlier, a Frenchman in charge of the security of an European Union delegation was slain in the diplomatic district Hada. On April 21, two Yemeni officers were shot down by commandos on motocycles.

Attacks of this kind are nothing new. In 2013, more than 70 soldiers were killed, most of them in Sanaa, in similar circumstances. In early February, two British people were abducted in the center of the capital, as well as a German in the old town’s suburbs. As of today, eight foreign citizens are still captive, including a Saudi diplomat, held since March 28, 2012. As a consequence, all Western diplomatic missions in the capital are in a state of high alert.

And yet, in the post-Arab Spring state of affairs, Yemen is considered something of a success. For ten months, a wide "national dialogue" gathered around the same table the main political leaders and representatives of civil society to lay the foundations of a new democratic and modern governance. Still, elements of the former regime are suspected of fueling chaos through armed groups in order to derail the national unity government.

Al-Qaeda stronghold

Meanwhile, the Yemeni army, assisted by U.S. drones, has been registering important victories against al-Qaeda in its strongholds in the south and southeast of the country. But the terrorist organization has adjusted to the new firepower its up against, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula instead plays the guerilla warfare card. It strikes boldly where it sees an available target, like it did on December 5, 2013 when a commando attacked the Defense Ministry’s hospital, killing 52 doctors, nurses and patients.

All diplomatic staff are now barricaded in fortified housing estates. They travel in convoys, in armored vehicles, always carrying a weapon and keeping one eye on the rear-view mirror. Before starting the engine, agents of intelligence services check twice under their cars. As for politicians, they avoid as much as possible to leave their homes. Since 2011, the year of the revolution, Sanaa’s security situation has continued to deteriorate.

A Yemeni soldier searches evidences after a roadside blast targeted an army bus in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 5, 2014 — Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ZUMA

"During the youth uprising, the authorities focused on politics," laments Abdel Ghani Ali al-Waji, the former police chief. "Criminals and terrorists groups had no trouble taking root in big cities. Everybody should have worked to make sure Sanaa was a city without weapons."

Experts from Safer Yemen agree. Launched in 2012, this private security agency just published a very detailed report on abductions of foreign citizens in Yemen since 2010. "Since the beginning of the revolution, they were mostly of a tribal nature, so as to obtain a ransom or demand the liberation of somebody. The motivations are now clearly political," reckons Nabil al-Shafari, chief of Safer Yemen’s operations. "Some in the Yemeni elite are unfortunately involved. First, they select their victims, depending on their nationalities or their jobs, and then they pay criminal groups to kidnap them and transfer them to al-Qaeda. These abductions, without extremist religious motivations, are used as a way to pressure and intimidate."

Source of suicide bombers

Still driving, Abdel Ghani Ali al-Waji continues on his nightly itinerary in the capital. In the Museik district, not far from the U.S. embassy, he stops his car abruptly. "Look!" he says, pointing at a group of youngsters with long hair in battledress. "We see a lot of others like them in Abyan (a region in southern Yemen, one of al-Qaeda’s strongholds.) The group can easily recruit in this poor neighborhoods, abandoned by the state and left without any police protection. Most of the kamikaze that perpetrated the latest attacks came from here."

Further north, in the district of Guraf, he warns: "If a sectarian conflict should break out, it would start here." "Here" is where Salafists and Houtis live. The latter, Shia rebels in a long and open conflict against the central government, have left their province of Saada, near the Saudi border, to gain territory right up to the edge of the capital. Many suspect that they are using it to stash a large arsenal.

After violent fights and a 100-day siege, they drove the Salafists out of their training camp in the northern town of Dammaj. With no apparent tensions, until now, the two arch enemies live in the same neighborhood, each justifying their weapons stockpile in the name of the "Yemeni tradition."

Al-Waji tries to stay positive nonetheless. "If he’s free to act, the new Interior Minister might be able to make things better," he says. As soon as he took office on March 7, Abdou Hussein al-Tarb was indeed patrolling anonymously in the capital to catch officers sleeping on the job. Rumor has it that he disarmed a dangerous biker by himself, and that he recruits officers single-handedly. Whether true, exaggerated or made up, the heavily broadcasted achievements of the new Minister are already known up and down the country. The population now wants to see results.

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