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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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