Local News

Yemen, Britain and Al-Qaeda

While the outgoing British Ambassador, Mr. Tim Torlot, was preparing for his ultimate meeting with the President of the Republic, HE Ali Abdullah Salah, his deputy was targeted with a rocket, narrowly missing her.

This incident has certainly cast aspersions on the ambassador’s meeting with President Saleh. It was not a desirable farewell message for the British Ambassador at the end of his posting in Yemen, which was full of personal troubles and challenges.

The incident occurred less than six months after the ambassador’s car itself was targeted by a suicide bomber who hurled himself towards the armored car of the ambassador, although only succeeding in obliterating himself.

The ambassador escaped the assassination attempt because the suicide bomber blew himself a few seconds before the passing of the ambassador’s car.

The deputy ambassador was ambushed in a place not all that far from that of the ambassador’s; only a few hundred meters from the only road leading to the British Embassy, where staff use for their daily commute, in the Noqom area, that contains a number of Arab and Western embassies and is close to Sana’a’s top hotels.

Al-Qaeda’s targeting of the British diplomats incidentally come after the enhanced relations between the two countries in combatting terror and after the previous British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, vowed at the beginning of January to support the Yemeni government’s efforts in fighting Al-Qaeda and contribute, with the U.S. administration, to financing a special anti-terrorism unit.

In addition, the British government is undertaking the task of supervising the fulfillment of the donors’ promises in London Conference 2006 and the Friends of Yemen group. The British government attempts to unify the international donors’ efforts to save Yemen from danger of collapse, despite the British Prime Minister’s description of Yemen as a failed state.

Al-Qaeda, as it is evident from the two operations against the British diplomats, used the daily route of the diplomats, from their homes to the British Embassy through Khawlan Street reaching Noqom area.

This meant it was an easy surveillance stake-out, and consequently carrying out those operations in the same spot, one of the most crowded areas in the capital where escaping is easy as attackers instantly melt away in the surrounding residential area where extremism is purported to hive.

Al-Qaeda’s use of a rocket to carry out the targeting operation against the car of the British deputy chief in mission is considered a development in the Al-Qaeda operations, which often prefers to use suicide bombers and car bombs. However, this was not the first time when such kind of weapon was used; such small arms were reported to have been used in attacks on the US embassy in Sana’a in the summer of 2008.

The British concern in terrorism in Yemen has noticeably increased during the last few years. This concern is evident from British government’s raising of the economic assistance to Yemen, to the tune of $110 M.

After the attack on the British deputy ambassador, the Chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Jonathan Evans, said that Al- Qaeda in Yemen has become an increasing threat to Britain. Many suspicious terrorist schemes, which British agencies recently investigated were related to Al-Qaeda activities in Yemen.

Perhaps the young Nigerian, Umar Al-Farouk Abdul-Mutallab, who attempted to blow up the US Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas eve, who studied mechanical engineering in the prestigious University College, London between 2005 and 2008, and lived in a home owned by his family in the center of the British capital, could be viewed as the catalyst for all this.

This was is the third instance of a connection between Al-Qaeda in Yemen and extremists in Britain, after the kidnapping of British tourists in Abyan in 1998.

Mutallab had supposedly met with leaders from the Al-Qaeda organization in the Arabian Peninsula and also met with Anwar Al-Awlaqil, a now infamous ideologue.

Photos of him were broadcast on one of the US channels while he was forwarding a message from a Sada Al-Malahem production, a media outfit which affiliates to Al-Qaeda, during his presence in one of its training camps in Yemen.

Targeting the car of the deputy chief mission prompted the British Foreign Minister, Mr. William Hague, to say that “the attack will only strengthen Britain’s determination to assist Yemen in the challenges it faces.”

The return of the Al-Qaeda organization to carry out operations in Sana’a represents an indication for the organization’s attempt to retaliate against the West after the pre-emptive strikes by aircrafts against its elements in many of Yemen’s governorates, and the arrest of a number of its elements and restriction of the geographical space for its movement and operation.

The organization has launched three operations this year in the capital secretariat, despite tightened security, two of which against British diplomats. Two of those operations were carried out in less than a month, where the first one targeted officers and soldiers of the Political Security Office; and the second against the British deputy ambassador.

The assailants managed to flee after carrying out both of the last two operations.

The return of Al-Qaeda to carry out operations in the heart of the capital might be a response to the government’s claims that it had managed to paralyze Al-Qaeda from moving freely and that it is truly suffering from the military strikes which the government had directed against it in recent years.

Yemeni –British relations have not been adversely affected by these two incidents. On the contrary, the British officials’ statements emphasize Britain’s continuation to support Yemen’s efforts in its war against Al-Qaeda– contrary to what happened in 1998 after the killing of four British nationals and when the Yemeni security forces freed 16 British nationals from an kidnapping carried out by the Aden-Abyan army under the leadership of Abu Al-Hasan Al-Mihdhar, who was executed later. Back then, the British government directed severe accusations to the Yemeni government for the mistakes which lead to the death of those victims.

Another link, perhaps less advertised or reported is that extremist cleric Abu Hamzah Al-Masri, who lives in Britain, dispatched a group of British nationals, who have Asian and Arab origins, to Yemen at the end of 1998, among whom his son, Mohammed, to carry out two sabotage operations against western interests in Aden.

In addition, Abu Hamzah had also been in contact with Zain Al-Aabideen Al-Mihdhar, leader of Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, which carried out the kidnapping.

The differences intensified between the two countries after Britain refusal in 2001 to deliver Abu Hamzah in exchange of Yemen’s delivering of five British nationals imprisoned in Aden after being convicted of planning to carrying out explosions.

In August 1999, the Yemeni judiciary sentenced eight British nationals and two Algerians to imprisonment for periods between seven months to seven years after they were found guilty of forming an armed gang for the purpose of carrying out terrorist operations in Aden. Three of the British nationals left Yemen in October 1999 after serving their time.

It can be said that the Yemen –British relations have undergone many attempts of restoration after that incident. The ceiling of the British assistance to Yemen has been raised.

In addition, the Yemeni president and a number of Yemeni officials paid many visits to London, which resulted in Britain’s hosting of the London Conference for Donors 2006 and Friends of Yemen Conference 2010.

The British government also called on the international donors to strengthen and intensify their efforts to support economic and political reforms in Yemen, and to prevent the deterioration of the current situation in Yemen.

Perhaps British intelligence reports on the possibility that Al-Qaeda elements Somalia and in Yemen might execute terrorist operations in London is one of the major reasons of the increase of British support to Yemen in its war against terrorism. Also, Britain’s growing desire to reclaim stability in the region is a motive for those moves.

With joint coordination between Britain and the U.S.A in the war on terror and efforts to check the growing influence of Iran on maritime route choke-points, which poses a threat on western economic interests and a danger to their allies in the region.

It is obvious that Britain and the USA are sharing tasks in supporting Yemen’s security and military capabilities. The first undertakes the training and support of the security agencies and counter terror units in the Central and National Security apparatus; while the latter undertakes the training, boosting and supporting of the capabilities of the Republican Guard, Special Forces and the Counter-Terrorism units within these bodies.

The Yemeni government gambles on Britain’s ability to urge the international donors, the most important of which are neighboring Gulf states and the European Union, to continue to support Yemen economically and politically in the security challenges it faces and its war on Al-Qaeda; and to assist the Yemeni government in getting out of the political disputes, that is largely to support the efforts of the political dialogue with the Yemeni opposition parties, the southern movement and the Huthi rebellion.

However, the British government is reliant upon the role of the Gulf States in economic assistance for Yemen, which have continued, since the meeting of the Friends of Yemen in London, on giving a major priority to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf States’ participation in implementing the process of the economic support and the political reforms in Yemen.

Britain is also wagering on evaluating the efforts of the Yemeni government in its response to British and US stipulations, and the major international monetary institutions, which call for enhancing transparency procedures and restricting financial and administrative corruption.