The Ups and Downs of Islamist Fortunes in Yemen, Somalia, and Mali

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Why Yemen is the Scariest Challenge Facing Obama Abroad: Bruce Riedel, The Daily Beast, Nov. 9, 2012     —The scariest terrorist challenge facing the re-elected President Obama comes from Yemen. Obama will have to face the growing menace of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the failing state in Yemen that it thrives on.


Somalia’s Tentative Recovery: Irfan Husain, Dawn, Dec.10, 2012—Finally, some good news from Somalia: In large measure, this return to normalcy is due to the defeat of the terrorist group Harkat al-Mujahideen al-Shebab by the forces of the African Mission for Somalia established by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).


A Trip Through Hell: Daily Life in Islamist Northern Mali: Paul Hyacinthe Mben, Der Spiegel, Oct. 30, 2012—For months, an Islamist regime has been terrorizing northern Mali. Hundreds of thousands have already fled the region, and those who have stayed behind are experiencing new forms of cruelty with each passing day. A Spiegel reporter documents a two-week journey through a region Europe fears will become the next Somalia.


On Topic Links



Losing Yemen: Gregory Johnsen, Foreign Policy,  Nov. 5, 2012

Saudi Arabia – Yemen Border Dispute: Chris Murphy, ICE Case Studies,  Nov., 2006

Remote U.S. Base at Core of Secret Operations: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, October 25, 2012

In Yemen Trading Girls is Economical: Hind Aleryani, NOW Lebanon, December 10, 2012





Bruce Riedel

The Daily Beast, Nov 9, 2012


The scariest terrorist challenge facing the re-elected President Obama comes from Yemen….Obama will have to face the growing menace of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the failing state in Yemen that it thrives on. The response must be nimble and careful because AQAP’s real goal is to drag America into another bleeding war in the Muslim world, this time hoping it will spread into the oil rich deserts of Saudi Arabia….


The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia by Gregory Johnsen is a detailed narrative account of the development of AQAP [see link in On Topic below – Ed.]….The story is fascinating, this is a group that was virtually destroyed in 2004 by drone attacks and effective counter terrorism operations, and then it recovered, helped immensely by the Arab world’s anger over the American invasion of Iraq. In 2009 it rebranded itself with new leadership composed of Saudis and Yemenis, several of whom had been prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. It’s number two, Saeed al Shihri, spent five years America’s Cuban prison before being released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 where he fled into Yemen. A drone had allegedly killed him last month, then he reappeared alive in a message threatening more attacks on America.


Since 2009 AQAP has tried to attack the American homeland at least three times. On Christmas Day 2009 it almost succeeded. [A] suicide terrorist…successfully penetrated American security and got a bomb on a Detroit bound flight that day. President Obama was absolutely right when he said after the fact “we dodged a bullet, but just barely” because the bomb failed to detonate properly. Johnsen reveals that AQAP’s master bomb maker, a Saudi named Ibrahim Asiri has now built a bomb with two detonators so it can’t fail.


The Arab Awakening came to Yemen in 2011 with a vengeance and has left the country completely fragmented. AQAP has thrived. Yemen has always been a difficult and inhospitable place. Its most desolate region, where Osama Ben Laden’s family comes from and Shihri was nearly killed, is the Hadramawt which means “death has come” in Arabic and is said to contain the gate to hell in one of its wadis. Today Yemen is running out of oil and water, more than half the population is under 18, half goes to bed every night hungry and the national government barely controls even parts of the capital.


For over a decade America has been trying to fight al Qaeda in Yemen without getting dragged deeper and deeper into its internal dysfunctional politics….America’s key ally in this war is Yemen’s bigger and richer brother, Saudi Arabia, the real prize in the struggle. Bin Laden and his protégés in AQAP have always had their focus on the Kingdom and the House of Saud. Johnsen details just how deeply the Saudis have become involved in the war in Yemen including how its intelligence service has foiled two AQAP plots against America and its Royal Saudi Air Force is now flying bombing strikes against AQAP targets deep inside the country.


AQAP entitled the video it produced about the Christmas Day plot “the Final Trap.”  Shihri was one of the narrators. What the title meant was that al Qaeda hopes to draw America deeper and deeper into a quagmire with more and more boots on the ground in Yemen. It wants another Iraq, another Afghanistan. An attack in America that killed hundreds would force America to take on the challenge of rebuilding Yemen with our own hands, a final trap that would bleed America’s military, our economy, and our morale.


President Obama has wisely avoided the trap for the last four years but the Yemeni threat has not gone away and the slow collapse of the Yemeni state offers little hope that it will.  Washington has a long-term challenge in Arabia…..


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Irfan Husain

Dawn, Dec.10, 2012


Finally, some good news from Somalia: according to a new issue of the French weekly Paris Match, the Somali shilling has doubled in value against the dollar over the last two years. The international airport at Mogadishu has been refurbished, and now boasts of a duty-free shop. Turkish Airlines operates three weekly flights to Istanbul as a result of a visit by Recep Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister….The same issue of the magazine informs us that the price of fish has shot up because of new restaurants opening up to cater for the increasing number of foreigners and returning expatriate Somalis. A new six-story hotel is coming up in the capital. Male and female students are returning to schools and university.


In large measure, this return to normalcy is due to the defeat of the terrorist group Harkat al-Mujahideen al-Shebab by the forces of the African Mission for Somalia established by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). This force, sanctioned by the UN, has been very successful in pushing the terrorists out of Mogadishu, and from other towns as well. The effort to eject the extremist thugs out of the country began last year, and has made steady success.


The other factor underpinning the Somali success story is the return of some 300,000 migrants who had been forced to leave their country due to the complete breakdown of law and order. With their money and their entrepreneurial spirit, the rebuilding of Somalia is under way. Scattered across North America and Europe, this diaspora made its mark by dint of hard work and self-help.


Considering that Somalia was for years synonymous with our notion of a failed state, this recovery is nothing short of miraculous. For decades, the country was caught up in murderous tribal warfare that destroyed much of Mogadishu. A slice of this mayhem was captured by the Nineties film Blackhawk Down that depicted the failed American effort to restore some order and bring in food supplies. In the event, Bill Clinton pulled out US forces after they lost a number of soldiers….


Whatever was left was demolished by the Shebab in their bid to impose a Taliban-like theocracy on Somalia. These holy warriors modelled themselves on the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, banning everything from music to sports. Symbolising the return to sanity is the reopening of the National Theatre, a building earlier used by the Shebab as an arms depot and then as a public toilet….


Repeated bouts of famine, in part caused by the civil war,…hastened Somalia’s descent into chaos. After a provisional government was established with international support, the country was again subjected to yet another round of violence when the Shebab attempted to take control. For years, Mogadishu was a divided city with the young terrorists calling the shots. The country is also plagued by a nest of pirates who prey on ships sailing hundreds of miles from the coast. Their links to the Shebab have been reported, and their depredations have been the subject of widespread international concern and action….


The return of a tenuous stability augurs well for this east African state. If it can build democratic institutions, it might well emerge from decades of violence and abject poverty. Luckily, it has many well-wishers: the West as well as its neighbours realize that a collapsed Somali state means trouble for the entire region…..


One lesson from Somalia is that given political will and firm military action, the extremist scourge can be defeated. The reality is that jihadis, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, have very little public support. Even though they fly the Islamic banner, they are actually fighting for power and money. They recruit poor, gullible young men to their cause, but the leaders are cynical killers who use religion as a ploy to silence their opponents.


In Somalia, the Shebab faded away when confronted with well armed and disciplined troops. While they killed and terrorised unarmed civilians, they were no match for the OAU force….


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Paul Hyacinthe Mben

Der Spiegel, Oct. 30, 2012


For months, an Islamist regime has been terrorizing northern Mali. Hundreds of thousands have already fled the region, and those who have stayed behind are experiencing new forms of cruelty with each passing day. Northern Mali is virtually inaccessible to journalists at present. Sharia law has been in effect there since last spring, when fundamentalists took control of a large part of the country, which had been considered a model nation until then. The fundamentalists stone adulterers, amputate limbs and squelch all opposition. They have destroyed tombs in Timbuktu that were recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site….


A checkpoint set up by the Islamist police on the road to Gao marks the beginning of the region controlled by the new rulers of northern Mali. Adolescents wielding Kalashnikovs stand at the barrier with their legs apart. The oldest one keeps repeating the same instructions through a megaphone: "No cigarettes, no CDs, no radios, no cameras, no jewelry," an endless loop of prohibitions, a list of everything that's haram, or impure, with which this journey to the north begins. The men stand guard in the name of the Prophet Muhammad.


With arrogant gestures, they stop the few long-distance buses still coming from southern Mali. One of the men, holding his weapon at the ready, inspects the busses by walking down the aisle and checking to make sure everyone is in compliance with the Islamists' rules: Are women and men sitting in separate areas? Are the women wearing the hijab? And are the men wearing trousers that reach to their ankles, the kind of trousers that radical Muslims believe the Prophet favoured? They are now obligatory in Gao….


Mali has been a divided country since April, when Islamists took control of a region in the north larger than France, while the south is still administered by a government that is incapable of defending itself. This spring, forces with the Tuareg ethnic group drove the Malian army out of the country's northern regions within only a few weeks. They proclaimed the Tuareg nation of Azawad, which no nation in the world has recognized.


Then came the Islamists, armed to the teeth with what was left of the arsenal of the former Gadhafi regime in nearby Libya. The Islamists are also well connected with al-Qaida fighters who for some years now have found a safe haven in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the countries of the Sahel zone south of the Sahara Desert. Those Tuareg who didn't join the Islamists were driven out. The fronts of buildings in Gao still show traces of the power struggle between the two groups, including bullet holes and blackened and crumbling walls. The world is now deeply concerned that Mali could turn into another Somalia or Afghanistan.


In principle, the United Nations Security Council has already approved the deployment of international troops against the north. The European Union has decided to send military advisors, and the United States is even considering the use of remote-controlled drones to fight the Islamist leaders. Northern Mali, less than a five-hour flight from Paris, cannot become a new hotbed of terrorism or a second Somalia, says German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. His US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamists in Mali were behind the attack that led to the death of the American ambassador in the Libyan city of Benghazi seven weeks ago.


Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."


To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.


"Gao is a dead city," says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao's economic output has "declined by 85 percent" since the spring. The Islamic police have become the city's biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered "haram" and "halal," or pure.


Until recently, the Sharia courts' sentences were also carried out on Washington Street, but now the Islamic police have become more cautious. Since an angry crowd managed to rescue people who had been convicted of crimes from the executioner, hands and feet are now being severed in secret. The Sharia court uses a former military base outside the city to carry out its grisly punishments.


One of its victims was Alhassane Boncana Maiga, who was found guilty of stealing cattle. Four guards drag Maiga, wearing a white robe, into a dark room and tie him to a chair, leaving only one hand free. A doctor gives the victim an injection for the pain. Then Omar Ben Saïd, the senior executioner, pulls a knife out of its sheath. "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," he calls out, takes the convicted man's hand and begins to slice into it, as blood squirts out. It becomes more difficult when Saïd reaches the bone, and it's a full three minutes before the hand drops into a bucket. The executioner reaches for his mobile phone, calls his superior and says: "The man has been punished."…


One of the masterminds behind Islamist terror in Mali is Iyad Ag Ghali. He lives in Kidal, 320 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Gao, in an opulent house near the airport, which is now closed. A short man with a long beard and sunglasses, Ag Ghali is constantly surrounded by a throng of heavily armed men with the group Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith."

Ansar Dine is a new organization. Until last year, Ag Ghali was known as a leading Tuareg separatist. He vacillated between seeking dialogue with Bamako and declaring an independent Tuareg state. Ag Ghali had a reputation for smoking and drinking, but he was also considered unreliable, so the Tuareg rebels marginalized him politically last November. That was probably the moment Ag Ghali discovered Islamism. From then on, instead of calling for a Tuareg nation, he promoted Sharia, saying: "All those who do not walk on Allah's paths are infidels." His change of heart secured him the support of al-Qaida and other extremists from the Maghreb.

His group is also involved in the drug trade in the Sahara. South American cartels send cocaine by ship to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. From there, the drugs travel northward by land, transported — in return for a hefty share of the profits — by rebels, revolutionaries and bandits, like the Ansar Dine combatants. Kidnappings are another source of income for the "Defenders of the Faith." When the UN approved the deployment of troops to northern Mali in mid-October, Ansar Dine threatened to kill French hostages under its control. Ag Ghali has little to say to the visitor. "Welcome to the Islamic city of Kidal," he says, before getting into his SUV and racing off, followed by his entourage.

But Kidal isn't really welcoming at all. Half of its residents have fled to Mauretania or Niger, and Islamic police in pickup trucks patrol the streets. The market is closed, and women are no longer permitted to go out in public alone in the city.  The men were instructed to grow beards. Those who do not obey the muezzin's call to prayer are either whipped or jailed for three days. Listening to the radio is banned, and the new rulers have simply sawed off satellite dishes on the roofs of houses.


Yacouba Mahamane Maiga is dozing under a tree. He is wearing a washed out T-shirt and shorts. He was one of the richest men in the city before the Islamists came to Kidal. "I can't stand any of this anymore," he says, making a fist and pointing it in the direction of the boys with the Kalashnikovs. Before the takeover, his construction company had just been hired to build a new prison and a new courthouse, both government contracts worth millions. Maiga invested €1.5 million ($1.9 million) in new excavators and cranes.


But there has been no construction in Kidal since the Islamists arrived, and Maiga is forced to look on as his country falls apart. His machines are covered in desert dust, and his employees have fled. "I worked with these hands my entire life," he says. "Those stupid Salafists." He refuses to take them very seriously and isn't fooled by their piety. He calls them bandits, not holy warriors.

Tirades in public can be dangerous. The Islamic police are everywhere, and yet Maiga no longer makes any effort to hide his anger. There are more than 20 ethnic groups in Mali, and until now, Muslims, Christians and animists coexisted peacefully. Religion was always a private matter, says Maiga. He is convinced that the Islamists have no popular support, and he says that the people of Kidal are tired of being pushed around by adolescents.

Maimouna Wallet Zeidane, 27, is one of the people who are trying to organize the resistance that is popping up everywhere. When it was still allowed, she was very athletic and shared a two-room apartment with her boyfriend in the Etambar neighborhood. Now she lives alone. Thugs with Ansar Dine wanted to cut off her boyfriend's hands, because they were living together. He has since fled to Algeria. "We live in 2012. How can they try to turn back time to the days of the Prophet?" Zeidane asks.

She wears jeans and a T-shirt at home, but if she wore such clothing outside she would be beaten with a stick. She has spread out sheets of paper in her living room and started writing out slogans. One reads: "Islamists = Drug Dealers." There is a knock at the door, and she quickly puts away the paper. "If the Islamic police find this here, they'll burn down the building." She puts a veil over her head and opens the door, by only a crack at first, but then all the way. Three women, her fellow campaigners, walk into the apartment. They call themselves the "Kidal Amazons." The group also consists of 250 women, and it grows larger at every demonstration, they say.

They'll be back on the streets in a few days, holding up their banners, in the middle of the Islamic city of Kidal. They'll risk beatings, each consisting of at least 40 lashes with a stick or a whip, and they'll go to prison. But Zeidane is determined to take that risk. The Islamists have destroyed her life, and she is no longer afraid of the men with the beards and guns. "They should all burn in hell," she says.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Losing Yemen: Gregory Johnsen, Foreign Policy,  Nov. 5, 2012—AQAP has repeatedly tried to strike the United States — with a pair of parcel bombs in 2010 and another underwear bomb that was uncovered in early 2012 — while the United States has responded with ramped-up drone and air strikes along with increased economic aid to the central government in Sanaa.


Saudi Arabia – Yemen Border Dispute: Chris Murphy, ICE Case Studies,  Nov., 2006—Even though a common border was delineated by the Taif Treaty in 1934, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have had continued conflict over the issue. The possible oil reserves, civil war, and Saudi interventions in Yemeni politics have driven the conflict for much of the last century.


Remote U.S. Base At Core Of Secret Operations: Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, October 25, 2012—Around the clock, about 16 times a day, drones take off or land at a U.S. military base here, the combat hub for the Obama administration’s counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East.


In Yemen Trading Girls Is Economical: Hind Aleryani, NOW Lebanon, December 10, 2012 —Exchange, or tradeoff, marriages provide a suitable solution to address the problem of high dowries and dire living conditions in Yemen. Basically, whoever is unable to pay the dowry of the girl he wants marry has to offer his sister to be married to the bride’s brother. Both men thus avoid paying dowries, while the bridegroom’s sister is denied her right to choose her husband, or even her right to a dowry.



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