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Yemen’s Slide to Chaos Risks Militant Haven on Saudi Border

Security Checkpoint in Sana'a
A Yemeni security officer checks a vehicle at a checkpoint erected at the entrance to the capital Sana'a. Photographer: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

In the impoverished capital of Yemen, tribal militias roam freely and their leaders drive through crowded streets guarded by heavily armed followers.

Security in Sana’a has deteriorated since popular unrest pushed President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office in 2011. Dozens of intelligence and security officials have been assassinated, al-Qaeda continues to attack government targets and Shiite-Muslim Houthi rebels, who are fighting Sunni Islamists in the north, are encamped in the city. Western diplomats who visit do so with greater protection and foreign nationals fear kidnapping more than they did a year ago.

“Yemen is slipping into chaos,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said by phone. “Assassinations of intelligence figures and threats to foreigners are rising.”

The instability raises concerns that Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor could disintegrate into a failed state like Somalia or be plunged into civil war. To prevent this, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. negotiated to end 11 months of protests two years ago and led a push for donors to provide $6.4 billion in aid to the poorest country in the Middle East. That included a pledge of $3.3 billion from Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy.

With rugged terrain and remote mountain villages that witness little to no government control, Yemen is already a haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which includes Saudi militants who fled a government crackdown starting in 2004. From here, attacks against the U.S. have been planned, including an attempt to parcel-bomb American synagogues. The U.S. uses drones to kill alleged al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen.

Saudi Targets

Yemen-based militants have also targeted Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, now the Saudi Interior Minister, was wounded in August 2009 when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the prince’s office in Jeddah, a failed assassination that al-Qaeda claimed was planned in Yemen.

“An increasingly unstable Yemen represents a very real security threat due to the potential for terror cells to take root there,” Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to Washington, said at the annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference this month in the U.S. capital. “Extremists have reportedly made deals with local tribal leaders for supplies and protection, creating a sanctuary not unlike Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.”

Oil Industry

The government started on Oct. 26 a campaign to tighten security in the capital and other cities by adding checkpoints and putting more troops on the streets. Efforts to stabilize the country have been hindered by a weak government under President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, who was elected unopposed in February 2012 under a Gulf Cooperation Council agreement.

Clashes between Houthis and Sunni gunmen killed at least 20 people in the town of Damaj in north Yemen, Surour al-Wadee, spokesman for the Salafists, said by phone late yesterday. Four soldiers were killed and another was wounded in an attack on a checkpoint in Abyan in the south, the al-Sahwa website of the Islamist Islah party reported today.

There are persistent attacks on the oil industry, which generates about 60 percent of Yemen’s revenue, and food costs are rising as wheat imports soar. Central Bank Governor Mohamed Bin Humam said in September that inflation will accelerate to as much as 8 percent by December. Government revenue fell an annual 25 percent during the first seven months of the year, according to the state-run Saba news agency.

Power Sharing

“The downward spiraling economy has exacerbated the security situation,” Fernando Carvajal, a specialist in Yemeni politics based in Sana’a where he’s researching a doctorate through the U.K.’s University of Exeter, said in response to e-mailed questions. “Threats to foreigners extend not only from potential acts by al-Qaeda, but also by criminal gangs who aim to disrupt the political environment.”

A German security guard at his country’s embassy in Sana’a was killed earlier this month by unidentified gunmen while shopping in part of the capital where foreign nationals live. In July, gunmen abducted a Dutch couple working as freelance reporters and teachers from the capital’s streets. The two, who have lived in Yemen since 2011, are still being held.

Inspired by political change in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemenis rallied in 2011 until Saleh stepped down, ending a political career of more than three decades. He came to power in 1978 as president of the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen. The southern part of the country was then a separate entity called the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Historic Divide

After unification in 1990, civil war erupted as the south tried to break away before being defeated by Saleh’s forces.

His ousting triggered hope among Yemen’s population of 25 million that the economy and security would improve. That optimism has waned.

Gulf-sponsored talks remain inconclusive as 565 representatives disagree on how to share power ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections proposed for February.

Without an agreement, there are concerns the country may split again along its historical north-south divide, Abdulghani al-Iryani, an independent political analyst, said from the capital.

“The challenge doesn’t lie in Sana’a but in addressing the southern issue,” he said. “There is a high probability of violence in the south if national dialogue is inconclusive.”

Gunmen stroll through Sana’a markets, passing government soldiers who follow them with a wary eye. In the old city, Houthi slogans painted on walls read “Death to America, Victory to Islam,” a recent addition to the capital’s graffiti.

Motorbike Killers

In the country’s north, the Houthis, a Shiite-Muslim group named after its founder Hussein al-Houthi, fought a six-year rebellion for autonomy from 2004. Saudi forces were drawn into the fighting in late 2009 after the Houthis seized land inside the kingdom.

Prospects for holding elections on schedule are uncertain, Ali al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, said by phone from Sana’a. “So far, it’s not clear how the issue of elections will be resolved,” he said. “It is almost impossible to hold elections as scheduled due to the security situation.” He didn’t say what the armed group would do if talks broke down.

In the meantime, the violence continues. Prime Minister Mohamed Salem Basindwah escaped injury in August when gunmen shot at his convoy. A colonel working in the intelligence service was killed by gunmen Oct. 24 in Sana’a. The government blames al-Qaeda for targeting military and security officers, including 40 shot by motorbike-riding assassins in 2012.

Al-Qaeda has used the weakness of the central government to build its presence and establish cells in the capital. An army base in the southeastern city of Mukalla was overrun in September by suspected Islamic militants. The threat of terrorism forced the U.S. and other nations to close missions in the country in August.

“The situation is getting worse,” Farouk al-Akhali, a 42-year-old street vendor, said beside his clothes stall in Sana’a. “The government is at its weakest point. We wanted political change but nothing has improved.”

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