Two points distinguish recent U.S. news coverage of events in Yemen, where a population of twenty-four million struggles through the worst humanitarian crisis in three generations. First, the media has largely ignored the dire social and economic problems facing Yemen’s population. As a result, the oppressive living conditions endured by the people of the Arab world’s poorest nation are barely recognized by average Americans. Second, on occasions when Yemen receives media coverage, the reports have always begun or ended with al-Qaeda, and the threat posed to U.S. citizens by this international terrorist organization. In other words, what little news coverage exists about Yemen has reinforced strong stereotypes about Yemenis, and Arab Muslims more broadly, within American society.
During the past few months, news stories about Yemen have primarily focused on President Obama’s efforts to assist the new Yemeni government formed in early 2012 under the leadership of President Abdurrabo Mansour Hadi. This assistance has mainly focused on driving out “members of al-Qaeda,” who allegedly established pockets of control in the southern parts of the country last year. The strengthening of “al-Qaeda’s grip” on these territories happened, so we are told, because of the “Arab Spring,” a youth uprising that overthrew former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh not to mention the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Between April and June 2011, when the former Yemeni president came under intense pressure to resign and was subsequently injured in a bombing near his residence, Saleh and his closest associates withdrew the armed forces from country’s outlying regions and stationed them closer to the capital, Sanaa, to protect the beleaguered regime. This was Saleh’s final, desperate attempt to save a regime that had been in power for more than three decades. The resulting political vacuum in the southern provinces, including the areas of Shabwa, Abyan, and Lahij, allowed different elements of the political opposition to step forward and claim local authority.
There are, however, several reasons to question whether these events were a result of the “Arab Spring.” First, while individuals who seized control of areas in Shabwa, Abyan, and Lahij did so under the banner of “Ansar al-Sharia” (“Supporters of Islamic Law”), it is not clear that they all served al-Qaeda’s agenda. While in some cases they mixed with foreign fighters, these local groups, which opposed the regime, came in different political shades. Political ideologies and loyalties varied from one region to another such that, for instance, al-Qaeda fighters who controlled areas of Abyan may not have necessarily held sway over parts of Shabwa and Lahij as well.
Second, there is considerable evidence that some groups that seized power in the southern regions did so with the consent, if not outright support of, President Saleh’s military and security commanders. This was particularly true of the Ansar al-Sharia group that took power in Abyan’s capital, near the port city Aden. Many Yemenis in the south speculated that Saleh wanted al-Qaeda or its allies to seize power as the specter of a “terrorist” resurgence would help the government obtain military support from the United States and other Western powers.
After Saleh stepped down as President in late November 2011 and Hadi was affirmed as president via public referendum in February 2012, the Obama administration began working closely with the Yemeni government to help the new regime regain control of the southern region. The operations primarily began in mid-May with Obama-approved drone missile strikes, which killed a half dozen or more “high-value al-Qaeda figures” in the south. The specific goal of joint Yemeni and American military operations between mid-May and mid-June was to retake three towns in Abyan.
With a U.S. presidential election looming on the horizon, coverage of the joint American-Yemeni offensive in southern regions has unsurprisingly focused on the drone attacks against al-Qaeda operatives, with little attention given to civilian causalities or the impact on Yemeni towns such as Lawdar, Ja’ar, and Zinjibar. Indeed, U.S. media stories about al-Qaeda’s role in south Yemen always register higher with American audiences than with Yemenis. In part, this has much to do with the media’s failure to understand or provide historical context on Yemen’s southern region, which existed as a separate state until the 1990 unification with the north.
Yemen’s South in Historical Context
One of the best examples of this deficiency in providing historical context is the lack of reporting about an important story that unfolded at the end of June 2012 in the former southern capital, Aden. The saga began immediately after a military campaign in neighboring Abyan, when Yemeni armed forces shot and killed more than two dozen people, while injuring scores of others, in a crowded Adeni district called al-Mansoura.
The al-Mansoura story belies the standard media narrative about al-Qaeda in Yemen. Yet, events in al-Mansoura will likely have greater significance for Yemen’s future than anything related to the notorious terrorist group. In order to understand this reality, it is essential to place recent events in their broader historical context, and to understand the connections between events across time.
To begin with, while the recent offensive in Abyan was successful in removing al-Qaeda’s base of operations, this occurred only after local tribes aligned with the Yemeni army, which is under President Hadi’s control, to help destroy the group’s presence in the province. Previously, these same tribes had refused to cooperate with the army not because they supported al-Qaeda, but because they opposed former President Saleh.
One individual credited with rallying local tribes to assist the Hadi government is Muhammad Ali Ahmed, a popular former governor of Abyan in the mid-1980s. Historical events from this earlier decade, when South Yemen was under the Yemeni Socialist Party’s (YSP) Marxist rule, are an essential reference point for anyone seeking to comprehend events in Yemen today.
During the mid-1980s, Muhammad Ali Ahmed and President Hadi worked under the administration of former South Yemeni president Ali Nasser Muhammad. The story of the “Ali Nasser partisans” is a story that has nearly come full circle from the time when South Yemen was governed by the YSP.
Southern Marxists ruled for more than twenty years between 1969 and 1990. During this late Cold War period, South Yemen was closely aligned with the former Soviet Union while North Yemen remained within the American sphere of influence. Towards the end of the Cold War, a deadly power struggle occurred in South Yemen. In January 1986, Ali Nasser’s partisans attempted to consolidate their hold on power by murdering a rival group of YSP leaders. Over the course of two weeks of fighting, Ali Nasser and his partisans lost control in Aden and were forced to flee to North Yemen.
Four years later in 1990, as the Cold War wound down and the Soviet Union began its rapid disintegration, Ali Nasser’s YSP rivals in Aden unexpectedly agreed to unite with North Yemen. This was a fateful decision as these YSP members found themselves vulnerable to political pressures and murderous attacks soon after relocating to the unified political capital of Sanaa in the north. In 1991 and 1992, there were roughly one hundred assassination attempts against the YSP and its southern supporters living in the north.
President Saleh and his associates blamed Ali Nasser partisans, accusing them of carrying out attacks against their YSP enemies in retribution for the 1986 power struggle. The targeted YSP officials blamed Saleh’s own associates, some of whom had connections with former mujahideen linked to Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. During the late Cold War, many of President Saleh’s closest associates undoubtedly supported the anti-communist Islamic agenda financed and directed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Former allies of Bin Laden have since acknowledged receiving support in the early 1990s, from both the emerging al-Qaeda organization and top military officers in Saleh’s regime, to assassinate YSP officials as part of the continuing jihad that began in Afghanistan.
The turmoil that resulted from the attacks on YSP leaders ultimately resulted in a full-scale civil war in Yemen between April and July 1994, when members of Ali Nasser’s rival YSP were defeated and forced into exile. Meanwhile, Saleh formed a partnership with Ali Nasser’s partisans, choosing Hadi as his vice president for the next seventeen years.