July 26, 2006
In Yemen’s “war on terrorism,” the legal merry-go-round continues. On July 12, a dozen officers from Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO) received sentences between eight months and three years and indefinite suspensions from work for collusion in the sensational escape of 23 al-Qaeda suspects from a Sanaa PSO prison in February. The defendants, however, remain entitled to retirement benefits (26September.com, July 14). The suspects were tried in a military court, although Yemen’s National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms protested that the court had no jurisdiction since security employees were part of the civil service (NewsYemen, July 17).
Nine of the 23 escapees have been captured, but none of the 13 who were convicted of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole (including their leader, Jamal al-Badawi) are currently detained. With the exception of Ahmad al-Raimi, all those recaptured have since been released for lack of evidence. The same cause has been cited in the release of 315 al-Qaeda suspects in recent months (26September.com, May 31). The PSO, like many institutions in Yemen, is thoroughly infiltrated by Islamists, some of whom are sympathetic to the aims of al-Qaeda. The Islamists are also well represented in the parliament by the Islah Party, which, despite its opposition status, is closely tied with the ruling General People’s Congress. With al-Badawi and his colleagues still on the loose, the PSO convictions will do little to mollify the U.S. administration, which views the escape as a major setback in U.S.-Yemen cooperation in the war on terrorism.
Perhaps indicative of the current mood in Yemen was the unlikely acquittal earlier this month of 19 men charged with the possession of weapons and explosives intended for attacks on U.S. interests in Yemen. Sanaa Primary Court judge Muhammad al-Badani ruled that the defendants (14 Yemenis and five Saudis) had only been charged because of their participation or intention to participate in jihad in Iraq under the direction of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and that the prosecution had failed to prove that the arms were not meant for that purpose. In a move sure to be applauded by Yemen’s Islamists, the judge relied on Sharia law in ruling that “when the enemy collects its forces to occupy a part of the defender’s homeland and seeks to occupy the whole land, so jihad is a duty for all Muslims to break off the occupation” (NewsYemen, July 9). The defendants remain in prison as the decision is being appealed in the Court of Criminal Appeals by state prosecutors, who have suggested that the acquittals “undermined trust in justice” (Arab News, July 13).
With a presidential election coming up in September, there is considerable speculation within Yemen that President Ali Abdullah Saleh is courting Yemen’s considerable and influential Islamist constituency. His main challenger will be Faisal ‘Othman bin Shamlan, a vocal opponent of al-Qaeda running on an anti-corruption platform (Yemen Times, July 8).
U.S. operations in Iraq are a daily sore-point for much of Yemen’s population, making President Saleh’s cooperation with the United States politically dangerous. Yemen’s army had especially close ties to the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein, many of whose ex-members now form the core of the Iraqi resistance. U.S. support for Israel’s current attacks on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip has brought thousands into the streets in protest and calls from some members of parliament for the expulsion of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajesky. Other MPs have called for a portion of the country’s oil revenues to be dedicated to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance to Israel (Yemen Observer, July 18). Simmering anti-U.S. sentiment may soon endanger the already tenuous security links between the United States and Yemen.
This article first appeared in the July 26, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus