Political Analysis

Who Tried to Kill Ali Abdullah Saleh?

There aren’t many foreigners traveling to Sanaa these days, but one group of outsiders is getting a lot of attention: an FBI forensics team, which reportedly arrived last week to investigate the attempted assassination of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia.

Evidence from the scene indicates that the explosion may have been caused by a device that was planted inside the mosque on the presidential compound, and not by a mortar shell or rocket, as was initially reported. If true, this means that someone with close access to the president was involved, which raises the question of why members of the Yemeni regime’s inner circle — set to mark its 33rd anniversary in power next month — now appear intent on destroying each other?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond the protests that have called for Saleh’s resignation and instead look at the premises of the political settlement that has held the inner circle together for so long.

The first spectacular rupture within the group came on March 21, when Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar publicly defected from the Saleh regime three days after snipers gunned down peaceful protesters in Sanaa, killing more than 50 people. Ali Mohsen is the country’s most powerful military leader and a distant cousin of Saleh. A fight between the two men has been simmering for at least a decade; empathy for the protesters was certainly not the only factor contributing to Ali Mohsen’s decision to jump ship. The rivalry between the two former allies was probably more decisive.

By joining the opposition movement, Ali Mohsen and other defectors from the regime have not necessarily heralded a new era for the Yemeni people. Instead, they appear to be settling old scores.

The inner workings of Saleh’s Yemen are incredibly opaque. Think of a series of concentric circles with him at their center: That’s the regime. Tightly wrapped around the president in the next circle are his close relatives (sons, nephews, half brothers, cousins, and in-laws), and slightly further away is the elite of the Sanhan tribe, to which both Saleh and Ali Mohsen belong. These three circles, consisting of perhaps 50 or so people in total, constitute the regime’s inner circle. Some of its members control the country’s most sensitive military positions, including those charged with counterterrorism operations in close cooperation with the United States. All have enjoyed the benefits of being deeply enmeshed in the country’s formal and informal economy.

The regime has intentionally kept the names of most members of the inner circle out of the public realm, and until several years ago even Saleh’s last name — Afaash — was treated as though it were a state secret. The likely reason: The name revealed that Saleh is not a sheikh and does not come from a respected tribal pedigree. Moreover, his name also revealed that Ali Mohsen actually sits above the president in the Sanhan tribal hierarchy.

The number of agents in this new team in Yemen possibly lies between the 100 to 300 deemed appropriate in earlier times by former FBI director Louis J Freeh for comparable matters, but on past performance the agents cannot be expected to do much more than spend government money, gain a few fleeting headlines — and live in terror.

The team’s arrival in Sana’รก coincides with international coverage of failure of its 13-year-long campaign to capture most-wanted Fazul Abdullah Mohammed for murders of US nationals in Kenya and Tanzania. Fazul was bumped off in a spontaneous gunfight in Africa, with no FBI help.

The bureau must retain some memories of its last visit to Yemen in 2000. Louis Freeh sent 100 agents (deficient in Arabic) there to investigate the USS Cole bombing and soon the doughty headline-hunting director arrived himself to shake the hand of president Saleh, the man recovering from injuries this week.

The president did little to protect these foreign law officers. Agents fled their Yemeni hotel in fear of their lives and continued their “investigation” of the USS Cole bombing from the safety of another US naval craft out in the Bay of Aden. One no longer fearless FBI agent wrote about how he and his colleagues had been going to bed with their sidearms in their hands or beneath their pillows. The agent’s article appeared in The New York Times two or three days before 9/11. Apparently nobody had fired a shot at them during their visit.

These days, the FBI boasts that, despite their deficiencies in the local alanguage and limitations in moving about through the crime scene, an “extensive FBI investigation ultimately determined that members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network planned and carried out the bombing.” This seems highly challengeable.

Posted in Yemen in 2000 nine months before 9/11 as they had been, these counter terrorism experts had not been available to look into complaints from sundry pilot training outfits in the US about how odd and ominous was the conduct of some of their Arab students — who on 9/11 piloted airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

The FBI does not boast of this new posting to Yemen to investigate the attack on the nation’s president, or its capabilities in the local language or any other thing. The size of the team has been unannounced. It could be that they presence was provoked by a Yemeni government claim that the president was wounded by al-Qaeda. Some Yemeni officials, however, say that the evildoers who wounded the president might be no more than tribal enemies. Doubtless the FBI will report its determination of the matter some time in the future.