“Yemen, Ancestral Home of Osama bin Laden”

by Noah Browning

In a multi-part series, National Yemen examines the ways in which international news describes Yemen and its current challenges.   Appealing to readers generally unfamiliar with the country, analysis of Yemen is more often then not accompanied with a repetitive series of labels (“Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab World, “Yemen is the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, “Yemen is largely ungoverned”) that provide a hasty and often inaccurate snapshot.

Some time around the twilight of the twentieth century, Muhammad Awad bin Laden was born in a small village in Yemen’s distant East.   In that long gone era, in which Turks and British vied for South Arabia, and the Kaiser and the Tsar still reigned, the progenitor of a famous, now infamous, family was born.

Date Palm agriculture and beekeeping, those traditional professions in the still largely forlorn and impoverished Wadi Hadramawt, provided a scant livelihood to the young man and his family.  His decision to seek better fortunes in the nascent Saudi Kingdom is the true beginning of the bin Laden story.

Unfortunately, a Western press and reading public almost completely ignorant of Yemen, and searching for ways to make some sense of the place which will resonate with their audience, have seized upon this obscure provenance.

The Western world’s foremost boogey man is serially associated with this complex country of 24 million, with a vibrant history stretching back four millennia.

But nuance can have no place in the spastic attention given by the news media to a far-away land – especially when the peerless bête noire of al-Qaeda is involved.

When the recurrent, inept bomb plot is revealed, whether in undergarment or overstuffed print-cartridge form, the trite formula is inevitably recycled.

Lacking much in the way of substantive explanations for these phenomena, or perhaps realizing that their audience will be annoyed or perplexed by such details, journalists invoke the old refrain, “Yemen is the Ancestral Home of Osama bin Laden.”

In reality, almost nothing about the advent of Osama bin laden, or the al-Qaeda organization – even its current Yemeni branch – can be illuminated by referring to Muhammad Awad’s few adolescent years in Wadi Hadramawt.

Far more can be learned about the phenomenon from his father’s adoptive home of Saudi Arabia, in which he worked his way from dock porter to billionaire construction magnate.

The Kingdom’s official version of puritanical Islam is unmatched in its strictness.   Massive oil wealth, complemented by preferential economic and political relationships with United States, is what really allowed the bin Laden family to rise from obscurity.

Finally, funds and fundamentalism coalesced disastrously in the joint US-Saudi military project in Afghanistan.  Subsidized by the countries’ intelligence agencies, a small group of radicalized and armed “mujahideen” triumphed, but quickly shifted about aimlessly, and mostly rebelled against their former backers.

Where Yemen fits into this story clear:  it simply does not.   How the personality and choices of Osama bin Laden was shaped by anything related to Yemeni culture or politics, past or present, is completely negligible.

Yet treatment of Saudi Arabia in the press seldom inoculates its readers with a phrase like, “Saudi Arabia, home of the bin Laden family.”  Justifiably, this would caricature a place whose history and challenges transcend the deeds of one man or one family.

In fact, there is no evidence that Osama bin Laden ever set foot on Yemeni soil.  Still, even Interpol’s official “Most Wanted” page lists his alternative birthplaces as “Jeddah, Yemen” – which is as unsubstantiated as it is baffling.

The Yemen connection was most flagrantly abused in the chaotic days after the September 11th attacks, when it seemed the established norms of not just diplomacy and war-making, but also journalism, were eagerly forgotten.

This frantic period witnessed the venerable BBC reporting, in late 2002, “SAS ‘hunting Bin Laden in Yemen.’”

Predictably, no independent verification of bin Laden’s actual presence or active relationship to the country was offered– only the whispers of unnamed “intelligence officials.”

By way of example, the association of bin Laden with Yemen has been likened to associating domestic American terrorist Timothy McVeigh with Ireland.

American news stories would never prefix an article on the Emerald Isle with the facile assertion that at some point, the island nation produced an individual, who, generations later and thousands of miles away, took the lives of innocents.

That would clearly do a disservice to Ireland, the journalistic craft, and the intelligence of all concerned.  The same scruples clearly do not apply to Yemen.

Much like Ireland, Yemen has a contemporary history wracked by hardship and political violence.  The complexity of such a conflict cannot be responsibly reduced to “terrorism,” abstractly defined, or indeed any individual.

Rather, violence in Yemen should be traced back to competing groups with discordant interests – all with certain legitimate grievances and claims – as well as poverty, poor governance, and even heavy foreign interference in domestic conflicts.

Fundamentalist terrorism originating from Yemen poses a certain infinitesimal threat to international security, and a rather larger danger, if not even a paramount one, to the Yemeni state.

A massive sectarian war recurring in six phases, which took on an international dimension with the entrance of Saudi Arabia into the fray, has devastated the country’s North.

Neighboring Somalia, ravaged by invasion and infighting, continues to send hundreds of refugees, when they don’t arrive as drowned corpses, to lives of desperation on Yemeni shores.

A secessionist movement threatens to rend the nation in twain and to create a devastating civil war which would consume countless towns and villages.  As it stands now, the skirmishes already regularly claim dozens of lives.

These are the real challenges of Yemen in the realm of security.  However, urgent humanitarian catastrophes can never compete with the likes of al-Qaeda and bin Laden for the attention of a Western press audience.

The attention deficit of this population, and the market-driven system of journalism dictates that only the most accessible, and in this case, totally misleading, connections can be drawn by those producing the news.