Middle East

Yemen: From Nepotism to Internal Jihad

A Yemeni soldier sits inside a helicopter as it patrols over Saada. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

Do the Yemeni government's actions against a band of Shiite rebels comprise an internal Jihad?

The upper levels of the Yemeni military, judiciary, and intelligence services are inculcated with hard-core Salafism, and many aspects of Yemeni state institutions support jihadist campaigns all over the world, including Iraq. It is in this context that the Yemeni Ministry of Defense recently published a fatwa on its Web site authorizing and obligating the use of deadly force against the Believing Youth, a small band of Shiite Zaidi rebels that has been battling the government on and off since 2004. Essentially, Yemen's military leadership declared a jihad on the group.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's nephews, relatives, and tribesmen make up the leadership of Yemen's military and security forces. Presidential relative Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is leading the assault on the Shiite rebels. Ahmar is the powerful commander of Yemen's North West military region and a reputed Salafi who recruited fighters for Osama bin Laden in the 1980's.

In the current round of fighting, the Yemeni military has augmented its ranks with child soldiers, tribesmen, and jihadis. Several induction centers have been opened and local media report that children as young as 15 have been given weapons and sent to the front with no training. Tribesmen from President Saleh's tribe, the Hashid Confederation, have also volunteered and been inducted for service in the thousands. As the Believing Youth are from the Bakil Tribal Confederation, military deployment of tribal irregulars has increased the threat of all-out tribal warfare.

Yemeni jihadis, unlike Yemen's child soldiers, are extremely well trained. Many are veterans of prior conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, and other jihadist campaigns. Some currently receive terrorist training in Yemen, reportedly with aid from some top military commanders. Saleh's use of Salafist proxies dates back at least to Yemen's 1994 civil war, when jihadis targeted Southern Socialist forces that had been labeled as apostates.

In 2007, a variety of Salafist jihadis joined Yemen's military efforts against the rebels even before the Defense Ministry published the fatwa. These included members of the Abyan Aden Islamic Army and its leader Khalidabdul Nabi, according to local reports. (In 2003, the Yemeni government reported to the United States that Nabi was dead when he was in fact released from custody.)

In February, Yahya al-Houthi, exiled Member of Parliament for the Saada region and brother of rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi, reported that "foreign gangs that escaped Egypt, Jordan, Syria, [and] Somalia" were also fighting against the Believing Youth. Clearly, President Saleh and General Ahmar have sacrificed significant command and control capacity by unleashing roving bands of Salafist jihadis in the region populated by Shiite civilians. The potential for indiscriminate targeting of civilians remains high.

Some of Saddam's former henchmen are also alongside the Yemeni military in Saada. Numerous Iraq generals were recruited into the Yemeni military in 2003 from among the nearly 30,000 Iraqis who fled to Yemen, including high-level Baathists. The Iraqi insurgency is thought to maintain a significant base in Yemen, and Yeminis comprise one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters in Iraq. Yemeni law does not criminalize violent acts committed beyond its borders as long as they occur in a country deemed "Muslim" and "occupied" and can be classified as Jihad.

In Yemen's fractured authoritarianism, some power centers are co-opted by Salafists and others are not, leading to an often irrational, contradictory governmental policy. For example, the regime granted amnesty to the Believing Youth in 2005 and then itself violated the terms, a governmental committee found. Security forces systematically continued to arrest and imprison them after the amnesty, the rebels reported. Military members occupied rebel homes. Soldiers physically and sometimes intimately inspected Zaidi women in markets. The rebels turned to the governor of Saada for help, and when none was forthcoming, they sought refuge in the mountains. (The Yemeni government subsequently disbanded the committee, accusing it of bias.)

As military causalities rise to the dismay of Yeminis, public sympathy is also focused on the civilians in Saada. The military has targeted the rebels with notoriously imprecise weaponry, including Katuysha missiles, destroying civilian homes and property. Currently the Yemeni regime, as it did in 2005, is blocking shipments of food, oil, and medicine to the region. It has cut all telecommunications. Over 10,000 citizens are estimated to be internal refugees and without shelter. Wounded civilians have little medical care as the hospitals are overwhelmed with military casualties. Food is in critically short supply. The siege of Saada, while intended to weaken rebel logistics, can also be seen as a policy of collective punishment.

Since fighting began in 2004, the totality of Zaidism has been under attack. The Yemeni regime has prohibited some mainstream Zaidi religious literature, replaced Zaidi preachers with Salafis at gunpoint, banned some Zaidi religious festivals, and those in civil society charged with supporting the rebellion receive harsh sentencing as contrasted with Al Qaeda elements, which routinely receive short sentences, amnesty, or manage to escape multiple times.

Zaidi and other schools have been closed as "extremist" but Wahhabi ones are flourishing. Jihadis making their way to Iraq seem to have little difficulty hopping a Yemen Airways flight to Damascus; however, several journalists and opposition politicians have been prohibited at the airport from leaving the country. With the recent outbreak of clashes in Saada, the regime cracked down on journalists reporting on it, and the military's Web site accused prominent editor Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani, among others, of supporting the rebellion, which in the context of the fatwa, justifies his murder. Some Salafi mosque preachers recently increased their rhetoric against Zaidis in general, reportedly on orders from the regime.

The repeated wars in Saada and the broader actions of the state targeting Zaidism can be seen as part of a systematic effort to eliminate the only effective barrier to the full domination of Salafism in Yemen, in both the religious and political arenas. However, sectarian tensions have been imposed on Yeminis rather than rising spontaneously from Yemeni society. While Salafism is gaining in popularity and is entrenched in the overt and covert power centers in Yemen, Shafii Sunnis comprise about 60 percent of Yeminis. Zaidi Shia (who make up 30 percent of Yeminis) and Shafii Sunnis are both moderate denominations that historically have had excellent relations. However, the growing influence of dedicated Salafis in the military, the judiciary, and the intelligence services has had a chilling effect on the previously open sense of religious pluralism in Yemen.

All states have the right to a monopoly on the use of force and President Saleh, declaring that there is no prospect for further negotiations, has vowed to crush the rebel group. What remains to be seen is if the Zaidi population in Saada, and Zaidism in Yemen, will be crushed as well.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.