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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Where The Hell Is Yemen And Why Should I Care?

Links: A. Yemen on Wikipedia
           B. CIA drone kills suspected CIA operatives

Yemen is the Muslim nation that occupies the strategic southwest corner of the Arabian
peninsula.  Depending on your tastes, the landscape can be described in various ways.  The coasts of Yemen include both barren, rocky cliffs and beautiful sand beaches.  The interior of Yemen is mountainous in places, as the Al-Sarat Range bisects northern Yemen.  The entire country is defined by a mountainous interior which falls to the sea on one side and to the Rub' Al Khali (the empty quarter) and Saudi Arabia on the other.  Not surprisingly, Yemen reminds me of the Dodecanese Islands of Greece.  Unless it was raining, Yemen always seemed to be sun-drenched, with little vegetation except for wait-to-shoulder high native shrubs.  Principal agricultural commodities include fruit (mangoes), sorghum, grain, cotton, and qat.  To use a favorite term from my childhood, the Yemenis grow a "buttload" of qat, and it gets exported everywhere.  Travel to Somalia, Kenya, Mauritius, and they will tell you that Yemeni qat is the best.  Heck, as far as I know, it may only grow in Yemen.  I can't recall ever seeing a woman chewing qat, but I'm sure it happens.  Its much like chewing tobacco.  You take a few leaves, squeeze together and put them in your mouth, either between your bottom lip and gums or in the pouch of your cheek.  When you collect enough spit, you do
Man chewing qat in Yemen
Source: Ferdinand Reus 
what comes natural.  Let me tell you, I've seen my share of stoners and potheads, but these qat chewers are just as dedicated.  They chew while working, from sun-up until sun-down, and they partake when relaxing.  I've been chewing tobacco (dipping) off and on for thirty-plus years, so I had to give it a shot.  To tell the truth, I never noticed much except for a bit of a headache that lasted all afternoon. I've heard that its supposed to be a bit like marijuana, but I've never smoked pot, so I can't compare.

Taking a look at Yemen on a map, you can see why I call it "the elbow country": since the end of the civil war between north and south, Yemen resembles an elbow and a bit of a forearm.  At one time, Yemen was a much-valued gem in the crown of the Ottoman Empire.  The area has always been active in trading, and old history books make mention of the port city of Mocha as being an important location for bartering just about everything under the sun.  This is what I love about places like Yemen; it's almost as if time has stood still.  An ancient map of this area identifies Yemen as "Arabia Felix", which translated from Latin means "Happy Arabia".  That same map, which may be centuries and centuries old, will identify cities that still exist today.  No wonder Yemen is a playground for Geographers and Archaeologists.  With the arrival of the Europeans, the usual scenario unfolded.  Portugal wanted it, as did the British.  It was part of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman for many years, until the arrival of the Ottoman Turks, who created a national border of sorts.  The Turks were removed following the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (1922), leaving Yemen in the cold, gluttonous hands of the English, who realized that the value in Yemen was strategic, not economic.

Between 1918 and 1967, the territory was in a constant disarray.  The British garrisoned a few of the larger towns, but were unable to subdue the tribal forces who were under various different leaders and, of course, were also trying to slit each other's throats.  Two treaties were signed with the British (in 1934 and 1940), which effectively decided the issue, although conflict continued.  The Yemeni people were able to enjoy a few decades of peace that coincided with the second world war.  But in 1967, the southern half of Yemen (Aden), split from the north.  This led to a civil war which seemed to go on forever.  In May 1990, both sides agreed to unification, and a treaty was signed.  Things were looking up . . . and then Al-Qaeda arrived. 

Shockingly, Al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen was not part of a plot to kill Americans.  Al-Qaeda, which is based on Sunni teachings, became active in Yemen in opposition to the actions of the Houthis, (the Shia Muslims of Yemen).  Yemen is one of those Muslim nations with a large population of both Sunni and Shia.  As has been the model, for many years the Sunni were accused of keeping the Shia (Houthi) from succeeding in business or participating in government.  With a bit of help from Iran, the Houthi armed themselves and started making demands at the end of an AK-47.  The Sunni-led government was in a real pickle.  Al-Qaeda was active in the southern coastal areas around Aden, but Yemeni President (and Sunni) Hadi could not ally himself and his government to Al-Qaeda because the United States was also in town, and up to that point, had been supporting Hadi in his efforts to stay in power.  Believe it or not, the U.S. military largely avoided involvement in the Houthi/Hadi conflict.  The U.S. presence in Yemen was for one purpose; to capture and kill members of Al-Qaeda.  Your see, Al-Qaeda wasn't in Yemen just to represent Sunni interests militarily, Al-Qaeda was in Yemen to provide training to its operatives.

When George W. Bush and the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003, we exposed Al-Qaeda's most glaring weakness.  Since we forced the issue into Bin Laden's own backyard, he had no choice but to respond.  The U.S. military engaged fighters from the Taliban, from Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and from other loosely-named but directly AQ-affiliated groups.  The bad guys had to funnel all their resources into the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there wasn't much time to plan and conduct another 9-11.  But Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri (probably more Al-Zawahiri) realized that the struggle needed something resembling a conventional army.  Recruitment drives went into action, especially targeting ex-military in the UK, France and the United States.  Recruitment also increased dramatically in Africa.  If Al-Qaeda was going to build an army, they needed soldiers. The recruits who showed intelligence were directed towards Al-Qaeda, who continued to be the cerebral part of the machine, while the rest were sent to Yemen, to learn how to be soldiers.  The Houthi development complicated what was turning into a war between Al-Qaeda recruits and armed U.S. drones.

This past weekend, the Hadi government fell.  The capital of Sana'a is calm, and the Houthi appear to be following through with their pledge to keep the peace.  The Houthi are the majority in north Yemen, which bodes well for a bit of down-time to try and group (for all sides).  Fortunately, the U.S. military has been extremely discreet when it comes to Yemen.  A real effort is being made to locate, target, and kill Al-Qaeda operatives.  I don't believe any chances are taken which involve civilians, which at this stage is the correct move.  Why is Yemen important?  Because Al-Qaeda has decided to use it as a training location for its operatives.  As the war in Syria continues, and the connections between Al-Qaeda and ISIS become more apparent, intelligence analysts will start to notice that some ISIS fighters were trained in Yemen, and the overall picture will become much more clear.          

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