Last week, it was reported that the CIA may attempt to capture or kill Anwar Al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based American cleric with ties to al-Qaeda.
Some say that’s bad news.
Not because Awlaki is a particularly loveable guy – he’s linked to both Umar Farooq Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of the plane on Christmas day, and to Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood last fall – but because he’s not important enough to kill.
Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, argues that Awlaki’s assassination would not hobble al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); it would simply give it a shiny new recruiting tool. Awlaki is “at best, a midlevel functionary in a local branch [of al-Qaeda],” Johnsen writes in this week’s Newsweek. “There are dozens of men who could do more harm to the United States, and killing Awlaki would only embolden them and aid in recruitment.”
The CIA should be targeting people like Qasim al-Raymi and Nasser al-Wahayshi, commanders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or former Guantánamo Bay detainees like Said Ali al-Shihri and Ibrahim al-Rubaish, Johnsen writes. Those guys’ deaths would seriously undermine AQAP as an organization, while Awlaki’s death would not. Awlaki’s newfound celebrity in Western news outlets is the result of his American citizenship, not his status, if he has one at all – the organization has never claimed him as a member – within AQAP.
Moreover, past U.S.-backed attacks on Yemeni soil, like those on Shabwa Province last December that killed scores of civilians, have done little more than enrage Yemenis and embolden AQAP. The so-called “Shabwa Massacre” was highly publicized on jihadi sites, in a recruiting video and, months later, Yemeni clerics hundreds of miles north in Sana’a still occasionally cite the event in their sermons.
But should U.S. counterterrorism policy decisions hinge on whether or not its actions will anger AQAP?
Other Yemen analysts say no. They argue that targeted assassinations, even if they provide AQAP with recruiting fodder in the short term, are worthwhile. These analysts say Awlaki poses a threat to America for reasons other than his supposed influence within AQAP.
He is dangerous because he serves as a potent recruiting tool for young English speakers abroad. As a born-and-bred American, Awlaki speaks with un-accented American English. His fiery sermons, uploaded regularly to YouTube and jihadist websites, call upon young Muslim-Americans to murder their fellow citizens, for the sake of Islam – a plea made all the more bone-chilling by Awlaki’s American-newscaster drone.
While al-Shihri and Rubaish might have more influence over when and where the next suicide attacks will occur, Awlaki arguable has more influence over whether or not the attackers themselves will be Americans or Europeans, who can slip by security checkpoints and access sensitive sites on American soil.
A January U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said U.S. citizens who had been recruited by AQAP were the newest and one of the most worrisome threats. (In March, Sharif Mobley, a 26-year-old New Jersey man suspected of being an al-Qaida member, was captured by Yemeni security forces. Before leaving for Yemen, he had worked for a nuclear power plant in the U.S.)
So, to shoot or not to shoot? At this point, the White House’s orders stand: CIA-operated unmanned drones flying over Yemen can take a shot at Awlaki if they have a chance. Whether or not he is actually killed, and whether or not his death helps the U.S. cause, remains to be seen. At any rate, almost all Yemen analysts agree that there are no silver bullets – or silver drone attacks, so to speak – that will solve the AQAP problem in Yemen.
April 12, 2010
Reporting from Sana, Yemen
Every woman at the bridal shower was drenched in color. One wore a lime green strapless gown with turquoise sequins; another a violet leopard-print caftan with scarlet lace; another a yellow, gold-beaded chemise with a neckline that would have made J-Lo blush.
Was this Yemen, or a strange mirage?
“Really, it is very bad,” said Samira Taher, one of the women at the shower. “If you see me in Egypt, I am always wearing the latest fashion, I have my hair in a new design, and I am wearing makeup, but here, I am wrapped in black. If a Yemeni woman wears what she wants, it is a scandal.”
In a country where the only women most visitors see are silent, demure and almost universally cloaked in a long black robe, their faces hidden behind the niqab, the bridal shower was like a hothouse of blooming flowers.
The niqab has become so ubiquitous in Sana, the capital, that some little girls wear training niqabs, just as little girls in America shuffle around in their mothers’ high heels, pretending they’re all grown up.
But follow the voices and the click of heels beyond closed doors to a parallel reality without men, a brief, sweet moment to peel back layers and slip cultural trappings.
At the shower, the disencumbered women split their time sneaking bites of chocolate cake with a shared fork, howling with laughter and dancing to loud music — sequin-emblazoned hips and shoulders shimmying in time with mincing steps.
When the music was over and the bridal plates were cleared, the re-bundling began.
The niqab, with its unrelenting blackness broken only by a narrow slit for the eyes, has become a symbol for the lack of women’s rights in the Islamic world, and in Yemen, it has become a point of contention between conservative sheiks and Yemeni politicians on the one hand, and westernized Yemenis and Yemeni women’s rights activists on the other.
“I am a Muslim. I pray, I fast, I follow what is in the Koran,” said Ramzia Aleryani, head of the Yemeni Women’s Union in Sana. “[The niqab] is not in the Koran. There is nothing Islamic about it — there is nothing in the Koran that says a woman must cover her face.”
Aleryani arms herself and her visitors with photocopied packets of Koranic passages and the prophet Muhammad’s sayings defending women’s rights. She says the niqab was imported to Yemen by Salafists, followers of an ultraconservative sect of Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia.
Thirty years ago, many Yemeni women wore traditional dresses or Western attire, and shared meals with men. The current vice governor of the southern port city of Aden said his mother used to walk around “in a miniskirt.”
To accept the niqab, Aleryani said, would be to accept many more often intolerant and regressive edicts.
“We are at war with the Salafists,” she said, unblinkingly. “It us versus them.”
Salafists and conservative political groups in Sana have in the last two decades gained an extraordinary amount of power in government and society. In the last few years, Salafists have threatened the Yemeni Women’s Union, left menacing phone messages for its leaders and published pamphlets decrying it as an anti-Muslim organization.
“Our women are cared for, respected and protected according to the Koran,” said Sheik Ali Werafi, a Salafist and a conservative member of parliament. “We cover them up to protect them. They have everything they need. The world comes to them. We do not need Western ideas imposed on our culture.”
A 2009 World Economic Forum report on gender equality lists Yemen for the fourth year in a row as the worst country to be a woman. Many girls are married when they are between 12 and 16 — some as young as 8 or 9 — to men they’ve never met. Afterward, they bear an average of 5.3 children. Outside the home, a woman is referred to as the “wife of” or the “mother of” — to do otherwise is often considered rude.
At the bridal shower, opinions were mixed. Faisa Hussein, one of the few women in Yemen with a university education, said Western countries fixate needlessly on the niqab.
“You,” Hussein said in an apparent reference to Western women, “hate us for wearing it. But I wear it because it makes me feel free. When I wear it, I can talk and laugh and eat and smile, and no one looks at me.
“I choose to wear it,” she said, wrinkling her nose, tanned in a strip across the bridge — the only part of her face ever exposed to the sun. “It is my choice.”
Hussein’s daughter, Shatha Alamory, who spent a year as a high school exchange student in Texas, nearly spit with rage at her mother’s response: “She’s right. Yemeni women cannot talk, laugh, eat or smile in public, or people will stare at them.”
Unlike her mother and sisters, 19-year-old Shatha refuses to hide her face. She wears a long black robe with a colorful head scarf instead, even though it means men in the street sometimes call her names. “They think I’m a ‘bad girl,’ ” she said. “I’m not.”
At the end of the night, the shower women gathered by the living room door, pulled on their robes and niqabs over their fuchsia, turquoise and lime green dresses, and said goodbye, their loud voices muffled by fabric.
Edwards is a special correspondent.
Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.
SANAA, Yemen — On the streets of Sanaa, an angry crowd gathers around a gas delivery truck. Children run down the alleyways rolling gas canisters in front of them, men wave their money at the deliverymen and veiled women who have been standing in line for hours shake their heads in exasperation.
A cooking gas shortage that has lasted more than a month has highlighted Yemeni citizens’ dissatisfaction with what they see as the continued failure of the government to deliver basic services. In the past month, Yemenis have faced an increase in fuel prices, a rapidly weakening currency and a dramatic increase in the price of some foods. Already, roughly half of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The recently compounded hardships come in the context of an improved outlook for the Yemeni economy, which is projected to grow by about 8 percent in 2010, according to officials at the Central Bank of Yemen.
“Economic growth in Yemen is very promising this year, supported by growth in the energy sector,” said Ibrahim al-Nahari, sub-governor for foreign banking operations at the Central Bank. The current devaluation of the Yemeni riyal is due to market forces outside of Yemen, he said.
But to many Yemenis, the complex workings of the market are an unsatisfactory explanation for the recent spike in prices of imported goods like sugar, which, according to locals, has doubled in recent weeks. And the long lines for government-subsidized cooking gas — at a time when the country has increased exports of liquefied natural gas — seems a cruel irony, even if the two factors aren’t directly linked.
“The economy is in ruins,” said Mohamed al-Baradi, a shopkeeper in the capital. “Maybe for the rich there is an economy, but not for the poor.”
Customers standing outside his tiny grocery nodded in agreement. They blamed recent instability, the weak currency and government corruption for their woes.
As Yemen has come under international scrutiny as a hotbed of Al Qaeda activity, officials inside and outside Yemen agree that improving the economy is key to fighting extremism. An important part of that challenge is translating economic growth into tangible benefits for Yemen’s population of 23 million — a task that may prove more formidable than merely increasing the country’s GDP.
Seventy percent of Yemen’s GDP currently comes from oil exports, a stream of revenue that may be drying up too quickly to be replaced by gas exports. Meanwhile the other sectors of the economy — tourism, agriculture and fishing — are stagnant.
This year’s projected growth is due almost entirely to the completion of a liquefied natural gas terminal on the coast that has begun exporting gas from Yemen’s interior to markets around the world. The Yemen LNG Company made its first of an expected 30 annual deliveries to Boston on Feb. 23.
Officials in Sanaa see the project as an economic lifeline, generating much-needed income as revenue from the country’s oil supplies dwindle. And the five-year, $4 billion project, funded by a consortium investors including the French oil company Total, has been hailed as a prime example of the positive impact of foreign investment in the country.
But the analysis from Yemen’s Deputy Minister of Finance Jalal Omar Yaqoub was more sobering. “The country’s growth cannot be driven by one project,” Yaqoub said. Though the millions of dollars going into the government’s coffers from the project should benefit all citizens of the country in the form of government-sponsored development projects, the reality is far from that ideal, he said.
“There is input to the government in the form of increased revenue, but what you get as output is not always what you expected,” he said.
To create sustainable economic benefits for average Yemenis, the government must improve the country’s investment environment, increase the capacity of the government to deliver services, eliminate corruption and implement reforms, Yaqoub said. And most of all, the government must establish legitimacy in the eyes of the people — a task that will take time and require the government to make good on its promises.
He used the example of government diesel and gasoline subsidies. The unsustainable subsidies currently eat up almost 30 percent of the total annual budget, but a cut in subsidies in 2005 caused the price of diesel to double, and led to riots across the country that killed more than 30 people. So even if it is better economic policy to cut subsidies, Yaqoub said, the government did not have enough credibility to pull it off, “They say ‘It’s your problem. Why should we pay for it?’”
At the beginning of February, the government again cut some subsidies — jacking up diesel and gas prices by a much smaller 8 percent — a gradual increase that has taxi drivers grumbling, but not rioting.
“There needs to be a lot of transparency,” said Abdo Seif, a program adviser to the United Nations Development Fund. “If you are doing reform by lifting subsidies, for example, and nothing is happening down the line, [the citizens] don’t buy in.”
But even skeptics in Yemen see opportunity in 2010, with the revenue from natural gas and the increased interest from the international community in the stability of the Yemeni economy.
“The government has the buy-in of citizens, the buy-in of the international community and strong regional support,” Seif said. “It’s a golden opportunity to implement reforms for once and forever.”
The trick will be ensuring that al-Baradi, the shopkeeper, sees the results.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
(…And really ruins it for the rest of us trying to get through U.S. customs from Yemen.)
SANA’A, YEMEN (March 12) — Sharif Mobley, a 26-year-old New Jersey man suspected of being an al-Qaida member, reportedly shot his way out of a Yemeni hospital Sunday and into American headlines.
“It was like the movies,” said Zaid al-Olfah, who was visiting a family member at the aging, Soviet-style building in the Yemeni capital on Sunday. “There was shooting and smoke coming out the windows and down the hallway.” The window of Mobley’s former hospital room is still blackened.
Mobley is the latest in a line of suspected “American jihadists” — disgruntled American citizens, including Colleen LaRose aka Jihad Jane, who have allegedly been radicalized and recruited as foot soldiers by Islamic extremists. Their American citizenship, which allows them to both travel freely and hold sensitive positions of employment without raising suspicion, makes them potentially invaluable contributors to al-Qaida plots on American soil, U.S. intelligence reports have said.
A January U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said as many as 36 American ex-convicts had arrived in Yemen in 2009, “ostensibly to study Arabic,” but that many “had disappeared and are suspected on having gone to al-Qaida training camps in ungoverned portions of the impoverished country.”
Mobley was arrested last week along with 10 other alleged al-Qaida members during a sweep in Yemen’s capital, said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for Yemen’s embassy in D.C. Several days later, he was transported to Republican Hospital in Sana’a, where he stole one of his guard’s guns, killed him and attempted to shoot his way out of the hospital, Albasha said.
Some witnesses at the hospital said Mobley was being treated for a broken leg, which they said he had sustained after he tried to jump off the roof of a building before his arrest. Others said he didn’t appear injured. “There are a lot of stories going around right now,” Albasha said. “I have not been able to substantiate a lot of it.”
The 11 alleged al-Qaida members arrested were staying on the outskirts of Sana’a in the Mathbah neighborhood, which is characterized by empty lots and unfinished buildings with bouquets of rebar sprouting from their roofs. Al-Iman University, a religious institute that some have suspected of promoting extremism, is nearby.
“He isn’t from here, he didn’t live here,” said Mohammed Abdul Al-Kuraimi, who lives in Mathbah and said he knew of Mobley. Mobley was known as “the Somali” because of his African heritage, he said. He also said Mobley studied at Dar al-Hadith Dammaj institute in Saada, a well-known Salafist school in Yemen’s northern province, which was decried as a “known terrorist training center” during tribunals for Guantanamo Bay detainees.
“Reports say that between 3,000 and 5,000 foreign students live and study there,” said Abdul-Salam al-Korary, a local journalist who has covered Yemen for several decades. “It is a very radical school.”
Abubaker Abdulla Al-Qirbi, Yemen’s minister of foreign affairs, said foreign students have been under scrutiny since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian who had studied Arabic and trained with al-Qaida in Yemen, attempted to ignite explosives in his underwear on an airline landing in Detroit on Christmas Day.
“It’s a very difficult problem because we get a lot of students from Southeast Asia, America and Europe to study Arabic or Islamic studies,” al-Qirbi said. “I think the gap in our system is after they arrive in Yemen. How do we monitor them in Yemen? This is a weakness that we are going to address now.”
The Yemeni government changed its visa policy in January, making it more difficult for foreigners to obtain tourist and residency visas. In a move designed to increase security, visas are no longer provided at the airport.
Muhammad al-Anisi, the director of Sana’a Institute for the Arabic Language in Sana’a, said it’s very hard to weed out the good from the bad. Both Abdulmutallab and John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban” who was captured in Afghanistan in 2001, studied at his institute. He described both as “peaceful” and “polite.” “These people cheat us. There was no indication to see that this person would do something bad,” he said.
Mobley’s recent arrest and subsequent fame follows a spate of media reports about “American jihadists” in the past few years.
Colleen LaRose, dubbed “Jihad Jane,” a blond-haired, blue-eyed Pennsylvania woman, was arrested in the fall for allegedly working with Islamic extremists to kill a Swedish artist who had created portraits of the Prophet Muhammad considered offensive by Muslims. And California-born Adam Gadahn (nee Pearlman) is allegedly working as an al-Qaida spokesman in Pakistan.
Last year, a group of Somali-Americans from Minnesota and a young man from Alabama were arrested after fighting alongside al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgent group with links to al-Qaida in Somalia. One of them earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first American suicide bomber in history during a bloody attack in November 2008 in Hargeysa, Somalia.
Anwar al-Awlaki, an Arizona-born American who became a radical imam in Yemen, is also tied to both the Fort Hood shooting in November and the Christmas Day airline bombing plot. His vitriolic and charismatic sermons — eerily delivered in an American drawl — remain influential among young jihadists both in Yemen and the U.S., according to analysts.
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee report said that al-Qaida and its affiliates have actively changed their recruiting techniques to attract U.S. and foreign-born fighters. In the past, many of their recruits have come from moderate, wealthy and non-Muslim backgrounds.
Mobley was raised in Buena, N.J., later lived in Newark, Del., and moved to Yemen roughly two years ago to study Arabic and Islam, according to The New York Times. His father, Charles Mobley, told a local NBC channel that he didn’t know anything about his son’s situation, but added that he was “no terrorist.”
Reporting for this story was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on International Crisis Reporting.
Happy (belated) International Women’s Day everyone! Read Haley’s latest on the The Pulitzer Center’s Untold Stories blog here.
ADEN, Yemen (March 6) — Sheikh Abdu Alrib al-Naqib, a gray-haired separatist leader from Yemen’s rural south, sat on his couch in this ramshackle port city, waving two American flags and humming an approximate version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We love America,” he said, grinning beneath his cream-colored turban. “We are not terrorists. We only want our human rights and our freedom from the authoritarian regime in the north.”
As Yemen’s southern separatist movement has gained steam in recent months, so has the government’s response. On Thursday an activist was killed while taking down the Yemeni national flag from a state building in the southern town of al-Habilayn, Reuters reported.
Mass demonstrations across Yemen’s southern provinces beginning in mid-February have led to more than 90 arrests and the shooting deaths of at least four other separatists, including a prominent activist and an arms dealer and their family members. Two policemen were also killed when their car overturned after a shootout.
The Yemeni government accuses the separatists of being terrorists associated with al-Qaida. Separatist leaders deny the association and are working to dispel that image — hence the American flags and all that humming of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Supporters of the separatist movement accuse the Yemeni government, based in the north, of robbing the south of its resources — including its lucrative oil fields and ports — while systematically discriminating against southern provinces when it distributes public resources like schools and hospitals. Dissatisfaction with the government is nearly universal among the southern population. While not everyone supports separation, nostalgia for the independent South Yemen, a Marxist republic, and even the days of British colonialism runs high.
South and North Yemen unified peacefully in 1990, but the relationship had deteriorated by 1994, when a southern insurgency was quelled in a brief yet bloody civil war. Calls for separation were renewed in 2007, when former Yemeni military officers claimed they had been denied pensions after the 1994 insurrection.
“The movement needs the support of the United States, Britain and the West. It must show them that they are not terrorists,” said Ali Haitham, a lawyer and journalist who has been active in the movement. “They are freedom-loving people.”
Nevertheless, they’re likely to be bitterly disappointed in their bid for Western sympathy. Western and Gulf nations have pledged billions of dollars to Yemen’s central government in the past two months, insisting that the stability of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime is a key element to fighting al-Qaida in Yemen. In order to use international military aid to quash anyone who threatens his regime, Saleh has a history of conflating his internal enemies with al-Qaida. That puts the separatists at a decided disadvantage in their attempt to court the same foreign powers.
The recent increase in both separatist activity and government crackdowns comes just weeks after the central government reached a truce, on Feb. 11, with Houthi rebels, a political faction of the Zaydi Shiites in northern Yemen. The government had been fighting the Houthis off and on since 2004 in a conflict that displaced more than 200,000 people.
Separatist leaders worry that Saleh, free of the Houthi problem for the time being, will set his sights on them.
“We expect to be attacked by Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has a history of brutally attacking his own people,” said Sheikh al-Naqib. “Look what he did to [the Houthis]. Why should we not expect to be next?”
In a well-publicized press conference last month, Yemen’s Interior Ministry pledged to fight “around the clock” against “the terrorists.” Western audiences interpreted that statement as a commitment to fight al-Qaida, while separatist leaders perceived a direct threat to their homes and villages.
“The truth is, American weapons will be used against us,” said Mohamed Tamah, a separatist leader wanted by Yemeni authorities. “We ask Americans, the British, the free world to step in and keep this dictator from killing us.”
In a Dec. 17 attack against alleged al-Qaida militants in the Abyan province, a separatist stronghold in southern Yemen, government forces killed more than 40 people. That incident has since become a rallying call for separatists. U.S. officials applauded the attacks as a blow to al-Qaida in the region, but locals claim that mostly civilians — including children — were killed.
The Yemeni government has since apologized for the attacks and offered to compensate victims’ families, but it continues to conflate the separatist movement and al-Qaida. In a complex political and tribal environment that operates in shades of gray, the truth of those claims are difficult to resolve.
A case in point is Tariq al-Fadhli, who was a jihadist in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s, a one-time confidant to Osama bin Laden and later a close ally of Saleh. He defected from the Yemeni government last year and became one of the most prominent separatist leaders. Last month, he hoisted an American flag in his backyard to demonstrate that his loyalties are not with al-Qaida.
But matters may not be that clear-cut. A Human Rights Watch report released in December suggested that a shared hatred for the government may forge an unlikely friendship between separatists and al-Qaida.
In the end, with the U.S. focused on fighting al-Qaida in Yemen, any movement that threatens the stability of the country’s central government is likely to be seen as a boon to al-Qaida, and is therefore unlikely to engender American support. That is a calculation that no amount of flag waving is likely to change.
Reporting for this story was funded in part by the Pulitzer Center on International Crisis Reporting.
In the rural villages around southern Yemen, the signs that a separatist movement is growing are unmistakable.
Residents fly the South Arabian flag – a red, white, blue and black symbol of the former South Yemen – outside their homes, and paint it on shop fronts, street signs or on the stocks of their guns.
Since South and North Yemen united in 1990, there has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction in the southern provinces, but it was only three years ago that movement gained an organisational structure.
Since then, and especially over the past three months, its demands have grown louder and the government has reacted by sending in the military.
At the end of last month, more than 90 people were arrested during a rash of widespread and massive demonstrations. This week, a series of government crackdowns left at least five separatists dead, including a leader and an arms dealer and members of their families – events that have enraged locals and fuelled more demonstrations in the region. At least two soldiers were also killed when their car overturned in pursuit of separatists after a gun battle.
Last Saturday, the government closed mobile phone services, restricted road transportation and declared a state of emergency in Dhale, a region of southern Yemen.
The increase in separatist activity and military action comes after the Yemeni government struck a truce on February 11 with Houthi rebels in the north. Southern separatist leaders worry that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, may now focus his attention – and his military might – on the long-simmering south.
“We expect to be attacked by Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has a history of brutally attacking his own people. He believes that Saddam Hussein was a great leader,” said Sheikh Abdu Alribh al Naqib, one of the main separatist leaders in the Yafa region north of Aden. “Look what he did to his own people in Sa’ada. Why should we not expect to be next?”
The Sa’ada conflict began in 2004 when Houthi rebels, a political faction of Zaidi Shiites, a religious minority, began agitating for equal representation in Yemen’s central government. The Houthis did not call for secession from the union.
The Yemeni government, however, has lumped its internal enemies into one category, labelling the Houthis, the separatists and al Qa’eda as “terrorists” who together make up “the triangle of evil” bent on destabilising the central government.
Western and Gulf leaders and analysts have said repeatedly that supporting Mr Saleh and his government is a key part of fighting al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula, the militant group’s Yemen and Saudi affiliate.
A December Human Rights Watch report warned that southern separatists and al Qa’eda shared hatred for the government and may be forging unlikely bonds, but separatist leaders have dismissed the relationship. They say the government’s accusations are a calculated political move.
“Saleh wants to scare the West into supporting a war against a freedom and peace-loving people,” said Mr al Naqib. “We support human rights, freedom and the rule of law. We do not agree with al Qa’eda. They are not welcome in our land.”
Like Tariq al Fadhli, a prominent separatist leader and an ex-jihadist in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Mr al Naqib has made overtures towards the United States in recent months in an effort to persuade Washington and its western and Gulf allies to ensure that their military aid to Yemen – designed to fight al Qa’eda – is not used against the separatist movement in the south.
Separatist leaders called for demonstrations last Saturday when Gulf countries met in Riyadh to discuss development and defence aid to Yemen. They say counter-terrorism money given to Mr Saleh’s government will be used to bomb their villages.
The separatist movement’s primary grievance is what it sees as economic, political and cultural oppression by the north. The movement’s leaders say the Yemeni government has extracted oil and gas from the south, confiscated southerners’ land and systematically discriminated against southerners in government and military jobs. It also complains that Sana’a has deliberately starved southern towns of public money for schools, hospitals or road maintenance.
“The north took my family farmland without moving us, or compensating us in any way. They just came in with guns and said, ‘Leave.’ What are we supposed to do?” said Fahmi Alshebe, an Aden resident who sympathises with the separatist movement.
Abdul Hamid Shukry, who works as a surgeon in Aden, said his salary was lower than that of surgeons in the north. “We are second-class citizens,” he said. “The north has taken everything – our jobs, our resources, our economy, our land. They have dragged us back into tribalism and intolerance. To them, we are nothing.”
Discontent with the “northern government”, as it is often called in the south, is fairly common in Aden, where people say they long for the days of British rule, which lasted from 1839 to 1967 and left its vestiges on the now-dilapidated port city in the form of churches, stately government offices and a rather grand visitors’ pier.
Others are nostalgic for the Socialist government, which ruled South Yemen during the 1970s and left a legacy of education, secularism and relative gender equality – but almost completely destroyed the nation’s economy. A Communist takeover in the 1980s led to an extended period of economic destitution, and in 1990, South and North Yemen unified peacefully.
The friendship quickly soured. In 1994, a southern uprising was crushed by the north in a short, but brutal, civil war, during which MrSaleh enlisted battle-hardened jihadists, recently home to Yemen from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, as a proxy militia against the south.
In the past two decades, literacy rates and women’s rights in southern Yemen have slipped, while unemployment and poverty levels have risen. Tribal law and the instances of once-banned, conservative Islamic traditions – such as child marriage – have also made a resurgence, much to the chagrin of those who grew up under British or Socialist rule.
A poll in January by the Yemeni Center for Civil Rights found that 70 per cent of southern Yemenis are in favour of secession, which until recently has centred around peaceful protests. Some separatist leaders say that sentiment is changing.
“I think violence is coming,” said Mohamed Tamah, a high-profile separatist leader in the Yafa region, who is wanted by Yemeni authorities. “Too many things have happened. Too many arrests, too many deaths, too much injustice. We are in a state of emergency. Something will happen soon.”
The current incarnation of the separatist movement – the “Southern Movement”, as it is called – began in 2007 when former military officers protested, saying they had been denied their pensions after the 1994 civil war. For the past three years, the movement has been a relatively diffuse organisation, marred by internal conflicts, but in recent months, leaders from several southern provinces and Aden intellectuals say the movement has begun to coalesce.
In the absence of an official central leader, many separatists look to the exiled former vice-president of Yemen, Ali Salim al Bidh, who after a long period of silence, has recently renewed his call for separatist agitation.
Many analysts worry that the southern movement is gaining steam too quickly. With protests happening more often, the government response becoming more violent and some separatist leaders talking about armed insurgency, many southerners fear a massive military offensive in the rural south from the central government.
The government’s nearly seven-month offensive against the Houthis last autumn – bolstered by Saudi Arabian military involvement – displaced roughly 120,000 people, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and left 7,000 houses in ruin, according to an estimate published in Small Wars Journal.
“A war is not the answer. Secession is not the answer,” said Mohammed Ismail al Saroori, the secretary general of a new party that supports reform and unity with the north. “There must be change – things cannot stay as they are – but through political reform.”
For their part, separatist leaders say the time for politics and reform is over. “We have been using peaceful protests for three years. We have called upon the government to change, to reform, but nothing,” said Mr Tamah.
“All the regime in the north understands is the gun.”
Reporting for this article was supported in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.