Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 20
is said to have been at odds with the president’s son99 and to have mobilised certain tribes and Islamist militias, jihadis included, to support the military in the war. According to a Zaydi scholar, the “war strengthened him and the role of Wahhabis inside the state”.100
Others maintain that the war is being used by the president to undermine Ali Muhsin. Units under his command have engaged in disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, earning him the nickname “Ali Katyusha”.101 Accurate or not, the depiction helps cast President Salih and his son as more pragmatic leaders, able to bring the war to a peaceful end, while Ali Muhsin is portrayed as mismanaging the counter-insurgency. Failed operations, rebel ambushes and internal miscommunications that led the army to strike its own positions prompted rumours of dissent within the military command.102 In the words of a Western diplomat, the war is a “poisoned chalice given to Ali Muhsin”.103
The existence of internal leadership rivalry is widely accepted as fact by Yemenis, though it remains very poorly documented. Many believe it helped fuel the war, as various groups within the regime sought to use the Saada conflict to their advantage. In particular, observers and activists who participated in mediation efforts claim that such competition obstructed their work, as one faction undermined another, the result being incoherence on the government’s part.104
99 Gregory Johnsen, “The Resiliency of Yemen’s Aden-Abyan Army”, Terrorism Monitor, vol. 4, no.14 (July 2006).
100 Crisis Group interview, Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, January 2009.
101 This nickname clearly refers to the notorious former Iraqi minister of defence, “Ali Kimiyawi” (Chemical Ali). Crisis Group interview, independent journalist, Sanaa, January 2009.
102 Crisis group interview, country director, international humanitarian NGO, Sanaa, 13 January 2009.
103 Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Sanaa, January 2009. According to some, army incompetence has jeopardised Ali Muhsin’s position. Al-Masdar (independent Sanaa weekly), 15 August 2008. Munir al-Mawri, a well-known Washington-based Yemeni journalist, reported that Ali Muhsin received threats and that plans existed to eliminate him physically or at least weaken him politically. Yemen Press (information website), 28 July 2008. The May 2008 attack on the Bin Salman Mosque in Saada governorate, which reportedly targeted Askar Zuail, one of Ali Muhsin’s close aides, although blamed on the rebels, is viewed by some as another indicator of internal leadership tensions.
104 Crisis Group interview, civil society activist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009. See also below, section V.A.
C. Rise of a War Economy
The conflict has given rise to a war economy that, in turn, helps ensure its perpetuation. For various tribes, army officers and state officials, the war has translated into the ability to control the porous border with Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea coastline; tribal leaders as well as high-ranking officials have amassed military hardware; and the same groups profit from illegal sales from army stockpiles. At the same time, continued operations have justified increased military budgets without government or independent oversight. Competition over such resources has been intense.105
105 A tribal sheikh said, “The war has become a war over resources”. Crisis Group interview, tribal sheikh from Saada governorate, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.