Before the War
The roots of the conflict in Yemen—a discussion between Washington Editor Andrew Cockburn and Sanaa-based political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, with photographs by Alex Potter.
As Saudi Arabia continues to rain U.S.-supplied bombs and missiles on Yemen, the hapless country has predictably receded from the fruit-fly attention of the U.S. media. When the Yemeni crisis does receive press, the coverage tends to the superficial. The infinite complexity of the country’s politics is reduced to the postcard-sized summary “Saudi-backed government versus Iranian-backed Houthi rebels”—except when the rubbing-out of one more alleged Al Qaeda bigwig needs to be trumpeted. There is of course a lot more to it than that. There always is in Yemeni politics, as I have learned over the years in talking to Sanaa-based political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani.
Al Iryani comes from a distinguished Yemeni family that has, through several generations, consistently argued for democratic reforms in Yemeni politics. His uncle is a former prime minister, and his brother was a cabinet minister until 2011. Al Iryani has used his ringside seat to master the country’s ever-shifting political scene. In particular he has been a close student of the career of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took power in a 1978 coup (he began his rise as literally the only man in his faction of the Yemeni army who could drive a tank), remained president until 2012, and is now fighting desperately to regain control of the country in alliance with the Houthis—members of the Zaidi sect of Islam that ruled North Yemen for hundreds of years before their monarchy was overthrown in 1962—with whom he has long had a tangled and bloody relationship. Most of the tribes from Sanaa north to the Saudi border are Zaidis. The Islah party, on the other hand, of which Al Iryani makes frequent mention, is a Saudi-backed Islamist Sunni group.
Al Iryani has also made careful study of Saleh’s distant relative, army strongman Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, whose career Saleh fostered until he came to view Al Ahmar as an over-mighty subject and so sought to undermine him; and Abdul Majeed Al Zindani, the jihadist mentor of Osama bin Laden (among others), whose Iman University, alma mater to many jihadists, including Anwar Al Awlaki, was long supported by Saudi Arabia.
Thanks to the Saudi bomb targeted on a Yemeni army munitions dump in mid-April that leveled much of Al Iryani’s neighborhood, driving him into (temporary, he hopes) exile, I recently had a chance to talk to him in Washington about the current war and the events leading up to it.
How’s your house?
Ruined. Right now I’m homeless. The Saudis are using very large bombs. It’s a war crime to use bunker-buster bombs in the city. When they hit an arms depot right at the edge of the city, they don’t bother to tell people to evacuate the area, although an advance warning would compromise nothing because the depot will not run away, and they’ve been bombing these depots constantly.
Eventually they said everybody has to get out of an area two kilometers from [various military bases around Sana’a]. But most of these bases are within three kilometers of each other. Basically they were being kind enough to ask two-and-a-half million people to evacuate the city. This didn’t make sense, and it’s impossible to do, so they’re giving people no choice but to stay in their homes and die.
How far was your house from the explosion?
About half a mile. The mountain exploded, about a thousand people were killed or injured. Eighty-four died right away, and then more died. Eight hundred or so were taken to hospitals in the area around our neighborhood. Other people were taken to hospitals further away. Now the people are living under these conditions. All the children I know are traumatized. One child, one of my relatives, goes into a coma every time the bombing starts. He will be scarred for life. Young children are traumatized but also teenagers; they go into fits of hysteria. Everyone that I know knows someone who’s died. They have no water, no electricity, no petrol, no medicines, and soon enough, within a few more weeks, no food. That’s two-and-a-half million people. These are the ones who are lucky enough to be in Sana’a city. It’s really worse in Taiz and Aden and the countryside.
Why is it worse there?
Because the fighting is much worse. In Taiz it’s house to house. The Houthis are responsible for most of the damage in Taiz. The Houthis are an outlaw organization, so we can understand that they will not pay any attention to international law with regards to conduct of a war. But the coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and operating under some kind of implicit sanction from the United Nations, they are committing war crimes on a daily basis.
How did this start—what led to this disaster?
Let me go back to the beginning when the Zaidi tribes of Yemen split during the 1962–70 Yemeni Royalist-Republican civil war. All of the Zaidi tribes surrounding Sanaa shifted their allegiance to the Republican regime, while the Zaidi tribes round Sadah, in the north, continued to owe allegiance to the Royalists. Sadah was effectively separated from the rest of North Yemen to the extent that until recently the main currency in use in Sadah was the Saudi riyal. They didn’t mind. They existed without reference to the rest of Yemen, mostly smuggling khat and drugs to Saudi Arabia and buying their goods and food and so on from Saudi Arabia.
Things changed when the Saudis set up a religious center teaching their brand of Islam. It was established by Muqbil Al Wadie, who had been the second in command of the [Islamic extremist] cell that took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 with the aim of overthrowing the Saudi royal family. The commander of the cell was killed along with most of his followers, but Al Wadie survived and spent a couple of months in Saudi prison. Then they decided to use him to extend their sectarian influence in Yemen. So they sent him to the Dammaj district of Sadah to establish a Salafi school right in the heartland of Zaidi Yemen. And that school was seen as an attack on the very existence of the Zaidi sect. There was a reaction by the Zaidis, and in reaction they started a group called the Believing Youth in 1992. The Believing Youth requested assistance from Iran in the form of books and scholarships, basic things. It was a religious, peaceful movement, not specifically political. The Iranians asked President Saleh if he would allow it, and he encouraged them to support the Believing Youth.
Then in the 1997 elections Saleh was concerned that the Islah—the Sunni political party, which was allied with Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s distant relative, and the Ahmer family, who were powerful tribal leaders—was getting too big in Sadah, so he started supporting Hussein Al Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement. Hussein Al Houthi’s brother was elected to parliament, representing the GPC, Saleh’s party, in 1997.
So why did Saleh start fighting the Houthis?
In 2004 Saleh was invited to the G8 meeting at Georgia’s Sea Island in the U.S. as encouragement to go after Al Qaeda in Yemen. He went back and convened his tribal council, his inner circle, and told them that America was pressing for action against Al Qaeda. Now in Yemen at that time Al Qaeda was largely viewed as an extension of Ali Mohsen’s power, because Mohsen was allied to the Sunni side of Yemeni politics, and Al Qaeda was on the extreme of the Sunnis, so he didn’t want to fight them. So he suggested, “We should go after those Shia fanatics up in Sadah.” Saleh liked the idea because he wanted to use them as an excuse for not having gone in full force after Al Qaeda, which he didn’t want to do, to avoid clashing with Mohsen and Al Zindani. So they decided to go start a conflict in Sadah. Then they turned to the Americans and said, “We’d love to go after Al Qaeda, and we promised to do so, and we will do so, but we really have to first [be] rid of those terrorists who are supported by Iran.” So from day one the Houthis were presented as an Iranian client, a terrorist movement, and all of that nonsense. That’s how it started in 2004.
In that first war, Saleh killed Hussein Al Houthi. Then he decided that he had done enough, especially given that Mohsen and Islah and the Sunnis in general redirected the war. Rather than a war against just the Houthis in particular, it became a war against the elite of the entire Zaidi community, who are known as the Hashemites. Saleh had a strong alliance with the Hashemites, so he didn’t want to go in that direction. So he had this big gathering of Hashemite leaders, and said, “You are my friends; I married into a Hashemite family; I have no problem with you. Your problem is with the other guy, with Mohsen.” He stopped the war. Mohsen then found a way to restart it. I think that’s when Saleh decided, let this war in Sadah be the way to get rid of Mohsen. So the war continued from 2004 to early 2010. The reason was because Saleh was sending arms to the Houthis to degrade the forces of his army commander, Ali Mohsen.
Didn’t the Americans say, “Our enemy here is Al Qaeda, and our enemy is coming out of places like Dammaj.”?
Well, we were saying that, but the problem was Saleh was intimately involved in promoting and manipulating Al Qaeda to extort money, both military assistance and actual hard cash, from Saudi Arabia and from the Americans. I usually say that Al Qaeda was in three factions. The biggest faction was working for Saleh and for government institutions, homeland security, political security, military intelligence. The second faction was working for Ali Mohsen and Islah and Al Zindani. And the third faction, a tiny small faction, was actually working for Osama Bin Ladin and Zawahiri. It’s still the case until today.
You mentioned the relationship between the Houthis and Iran. What exactly has been the relationship?
There is credible evidence that [the Houthis] have received certain high tech communication equipment, targeting equipment and stuff like that. But the weapons they use are actually from the Yemeni army. We know how it got there. We know when Saleh sent them the antitank missiles. Most of the support from Iran is actually in training and political support. There are five thousand Houthi students studying in Iran today. That is in addition to a large number of military trainees in southern Lebanon and in Iran. This is documented; it’s very credible. The Iranians tried their best in 2008 to convince the Yemeni government that they are not involved to the extent that the foreign minister of Iran offered to come to Sanaa to discuss the claims of the Yemeni government that they were supporting Houthis and answer any questions that may have arisen inadvertently by Iranian behavior. The Yemenis refused to receive him. This tells you that they didn’t really have any evidence that they could present to him.
However, the continuous claims by the Yemeni government and the Saudi government that the Iranians were substantially involved in the conflict in Sadah became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the negotiations just before the Houthis took Sana’a last year it became clear that they were in close coordination with the Iranians. Here is an example of that: One night, the negotiating team of the Houthis and the negotiating team of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi drafted an agreement to be discussed by both sides and to be agreed and signed the following morning. In the morning, before the Houthis came back to the negotiating table, the Omanis sent a copy of the agreement from Muscat to President Hadi, telling him the Iranians had agreed to support this agreement. Now, the government side did not send the agreement to Iran. So the Houthis sent the agreement to the Iranians for their approval. The Iranians shared that with the Omanis, not intending to have that come back to the Yemeni government. A few days before that the guy with the title of head of the Yemeni operating theater of the revolutionary guards in Iran sent a letter to President Hadi promising him that the Houthis will not take over Sana’a. Then he went into a lot of operational details. “We will accept this, and we will not accept that” and so on. It was as if he was actually running the campaign. It was officially delivered by the Iranian embassy to the president.
So by the time Sana’a was taken over, the Iranian involvement was clear. However, I still argue that it is not a patron-client relationship. The Houthis have their own domestic agenda, they rely very much on Iranian support, but they are not doing Iranian bidding. The Houthis are not as connected to Iran as Hezbollah in Lebanon because they are not the same sect; they are a different sect, close but not the same sect. Zaidis do not consider Ayatollah Khamanei [the Iranian supreme leader] to be their religious leader. There is no Iranian authority over the Zaidis of Yemen.
What was the role of the Saudis in the 2004–2010 wars against the Houthis?
At that time Saudi Arabia had a weak leadership. King Abdullah was not only weak but also in conflict with his powerful brothers of the Sudairi faction, leading to paralysis of the state on various issues of national security. So Saudi policy toward Yemen up to 2009 was really rudderless and reactive. Then, in 2009 they were sucked into the war by Saleh. You know how Saleh is manipulative, a great tactician really. He managed to suck them in so that he could extort money, and he managed to extort several billion dollars in the name of fighting the “Iranian threat” in Sadah. Within the Saudi regime there are two key factions, and maybe more beyond that, but two main factions, and at some point in the 2009 Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, one faction was trying to use that war in competition with the other faction.
Up until 2009, the Yemeni file had been held by Prince Sultan, minister of defense. When he got sick and went off to die, the file had been transferred to Interior Minister Prince Nayef on the grounds that Yemen was becoming an internal security threat, so the Ministry of Interior, which controls the counterterrorism forces, were granted authority to deal with Yemen. But Khalid Bin Sultan, son of Prince Sultan and deputy defense minister, wanted to restore his faction’s authority over the Yemen file, so he was anxious to get into a war, rather than just counterterrorist activity, the proper domain of the Ministry of Interior.
Did he get his chance?
In 2009 three hundred Houthis, at most, crossed into Saudi territory. Saleh drew them into it. By this time the lineup had changed. Ali Mohsen, the army commander, was supporting the Houthis, covertly, while Saleh was attacking them. His plan of using the Houthis to degrade Mohsen’s forces had worked; they were really worn down. Now he decided that it would be politically useful to put down the Houthis. So he attacked the Houthis with the Republican Guard forces that he controlled directly. Mohsen meanwhile, to get at Saleh, effectively handed over a lot of bases, full of weapons, to the Houthis to use against Saleh. Meanwhile Saleh obtained the permission of King Abdullah to allow the Yemeni army to cross into Saudi Arabia and attack the Houthis from the rear. The Houthis responded by invading Saudi Arabia.
Khalid Bin Sultan immediately declared the whole region of southern Saudi Arabia to be a “killing zone’”—his words. He declared a general mobilization of the armed forces of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to confront those three hundred infiltrators. There was fighting for several months. The Saudis carpet-bombed the entire border zone. When Khalid Bin Sultan declared southern Saudi Arabia to be a war zone he effectively banned the Ministry of Interior from the region. And so the counterterrorist forces who were properly trained to deal with this kind of security threat were not allowed to come in, and as a result the army couldn’t really sweep the infiltrators out of the border zone, and the Houthis came out victorious.
Because of 2009, the Saudis invested a couple of hundred billion dollars to strengthen and improve their armed forces. All the major investment in Saudi military preparedness was triggered by the 2009 war against the Houthis. That’s when they bought all those weapons from the Americans and the French and everyone.
What’s the lineup of forces now in Yemen?
Unfortunately it’s very skewed in favor of the coalition of Saleh, who controls a large part of the Yemeni army, and the Houthis. Together they control most of Yemeni government forces and institutions. They are in effective control of the state in Sana’a and most governorates [provinces]. Mukalla, an important port on the southern coast, is controlled by AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula].
And the Saudis are not bombing Mukalla, and they’re allowing food in. Have they traditionally been on good terms with AQAP?
Of course. Until maybe a few years after 9/11 they were still coordinating the bulk of financing of Abdul Majid Al Zindani [Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor, on the U.S. terrorist list] and Iman University. But eventually they parted ways; the Saudis conducted a major campaign against AQAP in their territory. The strategy was to push the AQAP members out of Saudi Arabia and into Yemen. So they established a dragnet clearly open in one end, and they just pushed them into Yemen. It was very convenient for them. As part of the campaign they also severed direct relations with AQAP.
But if you look at individual people who moved out into the AQAP camps, first stop was Al Iman, second was Dammaj, and off to terrorist training camps. So these places that had been Saudi funded, that was the terrorist railroad.
True, Iman University did not lose their support until the Arab Spring, when Al Zindani came out openly against Saudi Arabia, on the side of Qatar and against Saudi Arabia. Because that was how the Arab Spring mobilization took place, Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. I did ask the chairman of the university. He said the university was continuing to get [Saudi] support until 2011. And then after that, they had to downscale the accommodation and food and stipends and everything for the students. Dammaj I think continued to receive assistance. So maybe the educational institutions were kept on the Saudi payroll, but the jihadis and people who are directly involved in terrorist activity were no longer connected directly to the Saudis. They might have been connected indirectly through intermediaries. Al Zindani definitely continued to have good relations with the Saudis until the Arab Spring.
Saleh was so close to the Americans, so close to the Saudis, CIA director Brennan would call him up late at night; they had a relationship. Now he’s in an alliance with the Houthis, and the Americans are working with the Saudis to target him. What happened there?
I think the guy overplayed his hand. The negotiations are imbalanced between Saleh and the Americans, Saleh and the Saudis, because Saleh has his entire thinking focused on how to extort as much as possible from these two countries, while they were actually thinking about a whole range of things, fighting terrorism, development and their other concerns, so he managed to use AQAP, and he actually harbored them and provided them protection and safe houses in Sanaa.
He provided them with safe houses in Sanaa?!
Yeah, at the same time as he is declaring that he is going to go to all-out war against AQAP. I heard this from people who are intimately close to the process, including some people who are directly involved. So he kept extorting money and aid from these two countries. Eventually I think he was exposed. Now he tried to make a deal with the Saudis, and the Saudis said there will be no deals. He sent his son to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef a few weeks ago, and basically Mohammed Bin Nayef listened to him while he said, “We will sever our relations from the Houthis, and we will eliminate them; we have 50,000 fighters. And in return sanctions against my father will be lifted, his money will be released, and I become president.” And Mohammed Bin Nayef said to him, “The meeting is over.” They are done trying to make a deal with [Saleh], because he has broken every deal he had with them.
I always heard that he kept a lot of his money in cash, in shrink-wrapped hundred dollar bills in his basement. What has happened to that?
When one of his houses was bombed three weeks ago, there was talk about hundreds of millions being looted by his guards, neighbors, Houthis, etc. There’s no way of knowing. But I know people who he’s taken down to the basement to show them the money to keep them loyal to him.
Has the Saudi bombing campaign had much effect on the Houthis?
It’s really hard to quantify this. But the fact that the resistance to Houthi domination is now holding territory is definitely because of the Saudi bombing campaign. If there was no Saudi involvement the Houthis-Saleh coalition would have controlled the whole country two months ago. They would have been able to take over Aden. There was no resistance in Taiz. So the Saudis did have an impact in reducing the military capabilities of this coalition, and I think eventually they will force it to abandon its campaign to dominate. They have already agreed to go back to the negotiating table to reach an agreement on power sharing. However, I have serious worries that the Saudis are not going to stop there. Some of the narrative coming out of Saudi Arabia is that they will exterminate the Houthis. It’s very dangerous, because right now the reason we are having this conflict, the reason the peaceful transition (when Saleh was overthrown in 2011) was derailed in Yemen, was because of an imbalance of power between the Houthi-Saleh coalition and the rest of the factions. To restore the peaceful transition we have to restore the balance. If the Saudis go for the destruction of the Houthis as a military force, then they will create the same imbalance vis-à-vis the other side, which is the Islah tribal Sunni coalition. Which means we will continue to have a military conflict.
It’s not civil war yet, in the sense that people are not killing each other because of their identity. They’re still fighting over nominally political issues, although the underlying polarization is around identity lines. So I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis. The Houthis must remain as a counterbalance to the others. That’s the ideal situation that we can come out with.
With no water, no food, will there be a Yemen left to have a political settlement?
This goes beyond my worst fears in the past two years. But I think that Yemen is quite resilient; we can’t destroy Yemen. If we stop the fighting before we get past a certain threshold point where the conflict becomes outright sectarian conflict, that’s when I will lose hope completely.
Is the khat still getting through?
Allahu akbar, thank god our khat supply was never interrupted in the worst of fighting. Moderate prices, no problem. The new de facto president is a khat dealer, the chief negotiator of the Houthis is a khat dealer. Some of the top commanders are khat dealers. Clearly there’s one thing they can do well, supplying khat to the entire nation.