Yemen Terrorists Are Pawns of Power

By Sarah Phillips

Yemen is at an extraordinary juncture, but 32-year stalwart President Ali Abdullah Saleh won't go without a fight and he is using every trick in the book to cling to power. The most problematic trick is his penchant for releasing militant jihadis from prison when his legitimacy with the West is strained.

While the story has not been widely released, local security sources have confirmed that this is just what he did on March 8 when he quietly granted 70 al-Qa'ida suspects their freedom from a political security prison in Sanaa.

In other words, the man whom the US continues to look to for assistance against al-Qa'ida in Yemen has - again - released al-Qa'ida suspects from jail.

There have been dubious "escapes" from prison by al-Qa'ida figures in the past, the most audacious when 23 members walked out of the same high-security prison in February 2006.

Included in this group of 23 were two of the men who now lead al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates recently referred to as "perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al-Qa'ida right now".

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There are other reasons to doubt Saleh's genuine commitment to combating militant jihadis in Yemen. In 2007, he released convicted USS Cole bombing architect Jamal al-Badawi to house arrest, and pardoned Fahd al-Quso, who was also convicted for the attack. Quso re-emerged in an AQAP video last year, threatening to attack US interests.

This all seems rather counter-intuitive. Why would Saleh release members of a group that actively threatens him, particularly when he has also undermined his local legitimacy by consenting to US airstrikes against them? The answer is that he has built his power on crisis and al-Qa'ida are agents of crisis.

The presence of al-Qa'ida in Yemen ensures that the West will continue to look at the country through a counter-terrorism prism at the exclusion of the other seismic shifts that occur there.

It ensures that the West will argue for "stability" and "orderliness" rather than change through the emergence of a movement that is built on the rejection of the President's smoke and mirrors.

In so doing, Saleh has read his audience very well and, essentially, got away with murder.

Ten days after releasing the 70 men from prison, he placed snipers armed with Dragunov rifles on the buildings that overlook "Taghair" (Change) Square in Sanaa. Within a few minutes, they killed more than 50 unarmed protesters and injured hundreds more. Footage of the massacre shows the snipers targeted those who used handheld cameras to record the protest. Local sources say that ambulances were barred from entering the area and that government hospitals were told not to assist the injured.

Conscious of the security threat Yemen wields, US President Barack Obama responded to the massacre by saying "those responsible for today's violence must be held accountable", as if to suggest that Saleh might not really have been behind it.

Gates also tried to avoid commenting on the behaviour of America's ally when he said:

"I don't think it's my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen." He later elaborated when he was asked by a journalist: "How dangerous is . . . a post-Saleh Yemen to the United States?"

Gates's answer articulated the vain hope that Saleh was the man to prevent al-Qa'ida from gaining ground in Yemen. "We've had counter-terrorism co-operation with President Saleh and the Yemeni security services," he said.

"So if that government collapses, or is replaced by one (which) is dramatically more weak, then I think we'd face some additional challenges out of Yemen, there's no question about it."

But this is a leap of faith for the US. As a source close to Saleh once told me, the President's strategy is to "sell al-Qa'ida to the highest bidder". By sanctioning the release of the 70 prisoners from the political security prison in Sanaa, Saleh has tried to insure himself against becoming obsolete.

For a man who has ruled by creating chaos and confusion among those who might challenge him, releasing people who can show just how dangerous Yemen can be is the sale he was looking for.

Sarah Phillips lectures at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. Her second book, Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, will be published by the Adelphi Series later this year.

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