Yemen: taking another beating from the West

The post-Pantsman labelling of Yemen as a hotbed of terrorism is not the first time that nation has been unfairly demonised.

James Heartfield

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In the 1950s, my father-in-law Rodney was on his National Service, bundled on to a great barge of a troop carrier that made its way lazily through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal (when you could) with 300 bored, sunburnt, horny young men on their way to fight Chin Peng’s Malaysian guerrillas.

As they approached the Arabian peninsula, they were gathered for emergency briefings by their officers: a rebellion had broken out in Yemen – then known as the British colony of Aden and its hinterlands – and they were to land at Aden and put it down. Arriving at night, the squaddies were armed with two-foot batons, and told to put some stick about. There was fighting all through the market port, but in time the British Army prevailed and the Yemenis, bloodied and bruised, cleared the streets. Not much later, the troops were back on the barge, on their way to hunt down Chin Peng (and his supposed communist ally Lee Kuan Yew, the man who spent most of the past 50 years running Singapore, but that is another story).

It was only on the boat, piecing together all their stories as they celebrated another victory for British fair play, that Rodney and his mates worked out that there never had been a rebellion in Yemen. The only fighting that the citizens of Aden did was in reply to the battering that they were getting from the squaddies, and that was mostly just stone-throwing here and there. The whole thing had been made up by the British officers so that their troops would be able to get some action in, let off a bit of steam, and arrive in Singapore with a bit of confidence. You had to wonder whether this was a training exercise that the British troop carriers did a lot.

Now, Yemen is back in the news, following claims that the ‘Pants Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was trained there by al-Qaeda. It looks like Yemen might take another beating on trumped-up charges.

In the years since my father-in-law’s experiences, Yemen has often been knocked from pillar to post for reasons that are hatched hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Fighting off a movement that wanted to join Nasser’s United Arab Republic from 1963, Britain’s secret service chiefs organised a clandestine force of mercenaries – mostly Special Air Service (SAS) men operating off-the-books – and Saudi troops to undermine the Yemeni nationalists. More than £30million of colonial development ‘aid’ was wasted on bribes to venal tribal chiefs to buy their loyalty to the Saudis (1).

In Aden, in 1966, the British officer commanding Lieutenant Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Campbell’s brutal war against the guerrillas and Caesarist rule span so far out of control that he was made to resign. The officers had initiated inter-platoon rivalry by awarding Robertson’s jam golliwog stickers to units for each killing of an Arab (2). British intrigues helped to divide the country between North and South, provoking two decades of hostilities.


Lieutenant-Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Campbell at the wheel

Even when Yemenis did manage to discover the basis for unity in 1990, they were pitched into another trauma hatched elsewhere. In the first Gulf War conflict between the US-led coalition and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, newly united Yemen, by chance, had one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council. Perhaps the US representatives were pleased that they would be able to get the endorsement of an Arab state for their war plans. They did not take into account the Yemenis’ difficult past with the West and their relative lack of experience of the cynical trade-offs of High Diplomacy (the country was after all only two months old), and Yemen joined Cuba on 29 November in voting against the resolution authorising force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait.

‘That was the most expensive vote you will have cast’, a US State Department official told the Yemeni ambassador. An aid budget of $22million that had been promised to help unification was cut to less than $3million. Worse still, the Saudis – who had backed the US-led attack on Iraq – took revenge by expelling 800,000 Yemeni migrant workers who had been earning remittances to send back home. Now unemployed, the expelled workers made a sizeable impact on the country’s then population of 11.6million (3).

Not surprisingly, regional tensions broke out again, heightened by fighting over scarce resources, leading to a civil war in 1994. It should be said that Yemen was not the only Arab state that was torn apart by US demands that they should support the war against Saddam: Algeria, whose national military leadership backed the US war effort, was severely destabilised as Islamic militants made full use of the propaganda value of the elite’s pro-Western stance to win a majority in a quickly suppressed election in December 1991 (the Algerian Islamists threw their advantage away by promoting terrorism over popular mobilisation).

Yemen has suffered some instability, mostly because of the games that other, more powerful states have played in the region. Amongst disparate tribal groups there are separatist movements, like the Houthi in the Sa’adah province. Al-Qaeda, such as it is, has tried to build up bases where secular governments have failed – seeking to fulfil its own prophecy that human authority must give way to divine.


Yemeni troops fighting Houthi separatists, November 2009

But the evidence of Yemeni terrorist training camps is actually pretty sketchy. Such camps as there are seem to have been less of an influence on the ‘Pants Bomber’, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, than the awful trauma of going to university in Britain. Yemen’s own suicide bomber, 18-year-old Abdurrahman Mahdi Ali Qasem al-Ojiri, who killed a group of South Korean tourists and their guides in March 2009, seems to have become radicalised in the US.

While Western governments and media turn Yemen into the latest pariah state, there is the ring of truth to Yemeni complaints that terrorist bases are being talked up when their country has more prosaic problems to deal with.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked how the Pants Bomber conquered the world and talked to Frank Furedi about his book Invitation to Terror. Patrick Hayes looked at the myth of Afghan terrorism. Phil Hammond reviewed a new book on contemporary terrorism. Faisal Devji said Osama bin Laden merely speaks through Western dummies. Or read more at spiked issues: War on Terror and the Middle East.

(1) See Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations, chapter 31, London, 2000

(2) See reports from the Scottish Sunday Mail

(3) General census of population, Yemen, 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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