Varisco interviewed about Yemen on MSNBC, January 16

For the past week or so, just before the terrible human tragedy in Haiti, Yemen was once again a front page news story in the Western media. This time it was not about qât, nor about the rhino horn used in Yemeni dagger hilts, but the issue was exotic nevertheless. Yemen is newsworthy because of the recent attempted suicide mission of a Nigerian who met with members of the relatively recently reframed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At first, the political talking heads were eager to brand Yemen as a lawless tribal haven for the next stop of our continuing war on terror. Joe Lieberman added Yemen to his own version of the axis of evil, which I have previously commented upon. But then late last week Yemeni officials announced that six al-Qaeda figures had been killed in an airstrike, and on Saturday three more had been arrested near the Saudi border.

On Saturday, on my return from delivering two lectures in Toronto, I went straight from the airport to MSNBC, where I was interviewed (if that term works for about two minutes of air time) about the recent strikes on al-Qaeda in Yemen. Earlier in the week, I sat down for an extended interview on the current situation in Yemen with Karla Schuster of Hofstra University, an interview which can be seen on Youtube.

The coverage on the situation in Yemen has been mixed, not surprising given the level of ignorance about the country and the lack of expertise among both journalists and government officials. There has been some excellent commentary by Greg Johnsen and former Yemen Ambassador Edmund Hull, as well as the superb photojournalism of Karim Ben Khelifa, but there is also a fair amount of misinformation.

The latest Time Magazine contains an article by Andrew Lee Butters entitled “The Most Fragile Ally.” In general the article is fair, although it is mainly about the U.S. dealings with President Salih rather than providing effective background on the multiple crises facing Yemen. Unfortunately, the article does not seem to have had a very good fact checker, if such an old-fashioned position still exits. Otherwise flags might have been raised at the misleading statement in the first paragraph: “North Yemen had become an independent state after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.” The term “North Yemen” came to be used for the Yemen Arab Republic, which was created by a military coup in 1962, transforming the previous Zaydi Imamate of Yemen. Although the Zaydi imam recognized the distant authority of the Ottoman sultan, sealed in an agreement made in 1911, the departure of the Ottoman soldiers in 1918 did not immediately make Yemen an independent state. Imam Yahya took two years to gain control of the Tihama region, in open conflict with the Idrisi state on the Saudi coast. Also, the union of the Yemen Arab Republic and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen was arranged through diplomacy, militaristic as it may have been, rather than all-out war in 1990, despite the claim of a northern “victory” in the Time article. There was a brief “war” in 1994 that led to the hegemony of the north in the south. Perhaps the author thought the rather sparse Wikipedia article in Yemen was sufficient background for his article.

I question Mr. Butters’ worth (pun intended) when he repeats the misleading mantra that Yemen “has a long history of being both a source of militants and a staging ground for jihadist attacks.” How long a history is needed to be so branded? As a source of militants, it is worth remembering that Osama Bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, even if the ancestral home of his family is in the Hadramawt region of Yemen. There were Yemenis who volunteered to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, but at the time they were called “freedom fighters” by our government. For a refresher on that, click here. There were Muslims from a number of countries who served in that acceptible “jihad.” But in terms of terrorist attacks on Americans in Yemen, there has been little beyond the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor. The Yemenis cooperated with American authorities after that and by the end of 2003 the al-Qaeda cell in Yemen had been virtually eliminated. This is not to deny the terrorist credentials of senior members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but apart from the unsuccessful attempt of the “Undiebomber” to blow up a flight to Detroit last Christmas, not much else has been staged against Western interests. If there are only about 200 members of the current cell out of a population over 23 million, this is hardly the definition of a staging ground. Nor is it accurate to automatically assume that the militant tactics of the cell have the sympathy of the Yemeni population.

For clarification, Yemen is not Afghanistan, nor is it Iraq. In both these cases the governments collapsed due to American military intervention and the subsequent terrorism was largely a response to the American military presence and occupation. There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq when Saddam was in power; nor were there random attacks on Westerners under his dictatorial rule. Brutal as the Taliban rule was to its own people, they posed no threat to the United States until we took them out. As weak and untrustworthy as President Salih may seem, his government has largely cooperated with the United States. This has actually cost him politically, especially when Paul Wolfowitz bragged about direct American involvement in taking out Abu Ali al-Harithi in a 2003 drone strike.

Yemen is Yemen, so perhaps it would be better for news media to focus on the multiple economic, environmental, and now global issues pressing on this poor country.

Daniel Martin Varisco