History of Yemen: Wars, Politics, and al-Qaida


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Yemeni troops fighting the al-Houthi Rebellion

Yemen War

History of Yemen: Wars and Politics

Overview | North and South Yemen | al-Houthi Rebellion | al-Qaida in Yemen | Yemen Links and Resources


Yemen Map

Yemen is a Muslim nation on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula with a weak central government and possessing many indicators of a nation on the verge of falling apart. Yemen is plagued with a rebellion in the north by a Shiite Muslim sect, a separatist insurgency in the south, and a growing al-Qaida presence that draws the attention of the United States and is quickly turning Yemen into a leading front in the War on Jihadist Terror. The Yemeni government is fighting multiple wars within its own borders, and recently enlisted the aid of powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia in helping to fight one of those wars.

Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the world, with high unemployment, a low literacy rate, a corrupt government, a well-armed population with a history of stronger allegiance to tribe, clan, and family than to the nation, and a long history of civil conflict. Many analysts consider Yemen a leading candidate to become a "failed state," as Afghanistan once was and Somalia is now. Both Afghanistan and Somalia have become havens for al-Qaida and other Jihadist Muslim organizations intent on destabilizing secular Arab nations and launching attacks on Western interests. The presence of al-Qaida is not Yemen's only military problem, though it may be the most pressing as 2010 begins. The attempted bombing of an American airliner on Christmas Day, 2009 has been linked to al-Qaida forces in Yemen (part of the larger al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula organization, also known as AQAP). The suspected airline bomber spent time in Yemen and evidence points toward the likelihood that he received training in Yemen from al-Qaida. Also, a Yemeni radical Yemeni cleric was connected to the U.S. Army officer who killed several soldiers at Fort Hood earlier this year. As of this writing, many experts believe that an increased American involvement in Yemen is highly likely in 2010 as U.S. forces are likely to seek out and destroy al-Qaida elements linked to the attempted airliner bombing.

On May 22, 1990 the Republic of Yemen was established with the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic [Yemen (Sana'a) or North Yemen] and the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen [Yemen (Aden) or South Yemen]). With Yemeni history and politics, nothing is easy to comprehend or necessarily logical; the old North Yemen became independent in at the end of World War One in November of 1918 from the Ottoman Empire, and became a republic with the overthrow of the theocratic Imamate (religious monarchy) in 1962. South Yemen became independent on November 30, 1967 from Great Britain. The new South Yemeni nation became the only Marxist (i.e. Communist) nation in the Arab or Muslim world, and naturally became an ally of the old Communist Soviet Union. This put South Yemen at odds with more the more tradition-minded North Yemen, but also made enemies of the pro-Western and conservative neighboring nations of Saudi Arabia and Oman. As with many other places in the world with a conservative/Marxist split, the two Yemens became one focus in the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. When North and South Yemen went to war against each other in 1972 and 1979, both conflicts turned into Cold War flashpoints. In the late 1980s, the two Yemens discussed the possibility of peaceful unification, and in May of 1990, the two nations merged into one Republic of Yemen. Four years later, tensions between the conservative North, which dominated the new nation, and the more progressive South erupted in a short but bloody civil war in 1994. South Yemen declared independence, but lost the war. In recent years, factions in South Yemen have agitated against the central government. In the far northeast of North Yemen, the Shia (members of the Shia sect are known as Shiites) minority began a rebellion in 2004, which drew in Saudi Arabia against the rebels in November of 2009.

Most Yemenis are of the Sunni branch of Islam. A large religious minority belonging to the Shi'a (Shiite branch of Islam lives in the north, and is the main components of the so-called al-Houthi rebellion in Sa'dah. The rebellion was begun in 2004 by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Shi'a Zaidiyyah sect, and the rebels take their name from their now-dead leader. The government embarked on a large military offensive called "Operation Scorched Earth" in the August of 2009. This intensified fighting caused by this offensive spilled over the Saudi border, and in November, 2009, Saudi forces engaged in combat against the al-Houthi rebels, using airstrikes, artillery, and ground forces to fight the rebels. It must also be noted that Iran, the leading Shiite Muslim nation, is believed to be an active supporter of the Shiite al-Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a Sunni ruling family, has long supported the Yemeni government against the Shiite rebels in Sa'dah. Iran and Saudi Arabia are long-time rivals, and many analysts see their ongoing support of the two sides in the Yemeni war as a proxy battle between the two great Muslim powers. Also, the fact that the U.S. is a major supporter of the Yemen government also explains the Iranian connection, as the U.S. and Iran have been enemies since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s and the U.S.-Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 and 1980.

On February 11, 2009, the Yemen government and the al-Houthi rebels agreed to a cease-fire in the Sa'dah conflict.

Yemen has long been connected to the family of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization. The bin Laden family originated in Yemen prior to settling in Saudi Arabia and becoming wealthy in the construction business. Like Afghanistan and Somalia, other favorite bases for al-Qaida, Yemen status as a nation with a fairly weak central government and the frequent conflicts inside Yemen's borders makes the poor Arabian nation a good location for al-Qaida to hide, recruit, and plan further attacks on the West and on others. In October of 2000, al-Qaida operatives rammed a small boat into the side of an American warship, the USS Cole, blasting a hole in the side of the ship and killing 17 American sailors. A year later, in October, 2002, al-Qaida attacked a French oil tanker, killing one, and causing the spillage of 100,000 gallons of oil. In September, 2008, al-Qaida attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a in a car bomb attack followed by a gun battle with Embassy guards. The Yemeni government has worked with the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. in combating the al-Qaida presence in Yemen. In 2002, an American Predator drone controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed a vehicle in Yemen containing several al-Qaida operatives. Airstrikes against al-Qaida targets in Yemen in 2009, prior to the Christmas Day airliner attack, are believed to have been conducted with significant American aid, though officially the attacks were conducted by the Yemeni government.

In early January, 2010, General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, met with Yemeni President Saleh, and soon after, the Yemen government announced the deployment of more troops into the areas east of the capital near the Saudi border. That border area is known to possess a strong al-Qaida presence. These border provinces, such as the Hadramut area, contain many corrupt government officials, and many of the tribal leaders are aligned with al-Qaida. Also, Britain and the U.S. announced the closure of their embassies in Yemen due to the overall al-Qaida threat.

The movement for an independent South Yemen has gained strength since 2007, when protests broke out over the forced early retirement of several army officers from the south. Fears of a renewed civil war are constant, and many Yemenis still remember the bloody 1994 civil war. Violence continued in the south with armed rebels killing a police officer in late February, 2010, and security forces arresting 21 separatist leaders, which sparked large protests. Notably, some of these protests featured the flag of the old South Yemen.

In an interview with the New York Times in Febuary, 2010, separatists claim that more than 100 people have been killed in clashes with the police and security forces since the southern movement began in 2007, with arrested secessionists numbering around 1,500 remaining in prison as of early 2010.


 Links and Resources:


In Yemen’s South, Protests Could Cause More Instability--New York Times, Feb. 27, 2010

Waq al-Waq--Website/blog covering the insurgencies in Yemen

Profile: Tariq Nasr al-Fadhli--History Commons

Fresh separatist ambush kills policeman in south--Yemen News Agency, Feb. 26, 2010

Al Qaeda Threat Escalates : As Yemen Turns Up Heat on Terror Group, U.S. and U.K. Shut Embassies on Attack Fears--Wall Street Journal, Jan. 3, 2010

What other Al Qaeda-linked attacks have involved Yemen?--Christian Science Monitor, December, 2009

Civil war fears as Yemen celebrates unity --BBC, May, 2009

Shi'ite Insurgency in Yemen: Iranian Intervention or Mountain Revolt?--Jamestown Foundation, May, 2005

 CIA Factbook on Country or conflict --Click on the country name (Yemen) at this site.

Southern Yemen totters dangerously on the edge of secession--Lebanon Daily Star, June 11, 2009

Security Incidents in Yemen, 1998--From the Al-bab website.

Tiny Voices Defy Child Marriage in Yemen--June 29, 2008

Massive protest in south Yemen--by Jane Novak, for the Long War Journal, May 27, 2008

Yemen's Intifada--by Jane Novak, for the Long War Journal, January 2, 2008

Copyright © 1998-2011 Roger A. Lee and History Guy Media; Last Modified: 10.27.12

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