Are American Drones al-Qaeda’s Strongest Weapon in Yemen?
Things are getting really messy in Yemen at the moment. With soldiers being murdered in their sleep and embassies closing en masse in fear of an imminent wave of attacks and multiple drone strikes, the country seems to be the latest sandbox full of blood in our War on Terror.
Not that this warzone is all that new. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have had a presence in the area for years, their membership rose from around 300 in 2009 up to an estimated 1,000 today. In an attempt to combat this rise in manpower, the US has escalated its infamous drone program, allegedly targeting high-ranking AQAP members. Although, according to reports, they’ve yet to actually kill any of them.
Is this hit and hope policy really the best way to fight al-Qaeda in Yemen? Or are these drone strikes, which have a habit of killing civilians, exactly the PR ammo al-Qaeda need to lure new recruits in a country that is already as politically stable as a gang of jihadists on a bouncy castle?
Drinking Camel Urine in Yemen
People have been consuming camel piss on the Arabian Peninsula for a long, long time. It’s been used by the Bedouin people as a shampoo and medicine for centuries, and it’s part of Muslim tradition as well; the Prophet Mohammed is said to have once told some of his sick followers to drink camel milk and pee “till their bodies became healthy.”
Since the seventh century, Yemenis have been following his advice. Statistics about camel urine use are rare, but if you spend any time in Yemen you’ll find some people, mostly in the countryside, who drink urine as a cure for whatever ails them. Some salons use it as a remedy for hair loss, and it’s even occasionally prescribed by some doctors.
Yemen Wants Their Guantanamo Detainees Back
In some regards, the Yemeni government’s recent demand for the repatriation of Yemeni detainees who have been languishing in Guantanamo Bay for nearly a decade seemed to come out of left field, as did the prison hunger strikes that prompted it. President Obama’s 2008-election-campaign promises to close the notorious prison remain unfulfilled. According to recent polls, roughly 70 percent of Americans back the president’s decision to ignore his pledge and keep the prison open; polls taken at the start of his 2012 term put support for Guantanamo’s closure at a tepid 53 percent.
It’s a mistake, however, to say that the detainees have completely disappeared from most Yemenis’ minds. Of the 166 detainees who remain held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, 91 are Yemeni. It’s not quite as popular an issue as the drone strikes, but Yemenis still bring up Guantanamo on a nearly weekly basis. Many see the legal limbo of their fellow countrymen as a kind of tragicomic joke.
Recently in Sanaa, dozens of family members of Guantanamo detainees gathered at the American embassy to protest their internment.
“We demand that the American government release all detainees,” one father said, holding up a poster of his son. “The Yemeni government should do everything in its power to pressure them. Does Obama think that there’s a Yemeni exception when it comes to human rights?”
Who Is Causing the Blackouts in Yemen?
As the Arab Spring hit Yemen in 2011, urban Yemenis called for an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three-decade reign in power. They also saw the end of their reliable access to electricity. The situation bottomed out in late summer, as 23 hour long power cuts during Ramadan left fatigued Yemenis struggling to negotiate dimly lit iftar meals at night. Improvements sharply sped up when Saleh’s successor, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took office.
Nevertheless, this week finds Sanaa thrown back into the darkness.
In 2011, there was a widespread rumor that the power outages weren’t accidental. Conspiracy theorists were vindicated last May when, following Saleh’s flight to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, Sanaa saw its first full day of power in weeks. The blackouts returned, of course, and soon were worse than ever. In those literal and metaphorical dark days, it wasn’t hard to imagine the embattled leader was the one behind the power cuts; the minarets of Saleh’s monumental Mosque, lit by a self-contained generator system, seemed to loom over the city, as if he was giving us all the finger. Months after Saleh left power, the Minister of Electricity was still blaming him for acts of sabotage. For their part, Saleh’s political allies have often made similar accusations against their opponents. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if both sides were guilty.
Crossing Pirate Alley on a Yemeni Cookie Boat
The Bamadhaf Shipping Company in Aden is supposedly the only agency that can arrange passenger transit on cargo boats out of Yemen. Their building sits down a decrepit, graffiti-covered side street off the apocalyptic main drag of Aden’s Mu’alla neighborhood. When I arrived, thousands of gray bricks peppered the landscape in front of the building, remnants of an anti-government protest the government hadn’t yet bothered to clean up. A large red sign on a pole read, “Ha’il Walid Ha’il Martyr Street, the youngest martyr in the south.”
Two women in black abayas manned the Bamadhaf office. They told me their names were Salma and Naima. Salma wore sapphire blue contacts and spoke beautiful English. Cargo ships didn’t leave every day, she said. After a week of lingering around in Aden, I secured a spot on a ship bound for Somaliland, transporting a quarter-million pounds of cookies.
Berbera, the port I was shooting for, is no more like Mogadishu than Erbil is like Baghdad. It is the largest coastal city of secessionist Somaliland, entirely separate from Somalia: different currency, different government, different visas, and a wholly different respect for the rule of law.
The boat was called the Al Medina and was stocked with a $30,000 load of chalky Abu Walid Sandwich Biscuits. To get on board required the approval of Aden’s Port General. “He cannot say no,” Naima said. “He has no right to.”
The Port General received me in a bright windowed room on the highest floor of a building that looked like the bridge of a British schooner. He wore the complete naval uniform—all white with golden buttons. An officer stood by his side. After I pled my case, he thought for a moment.
“No,” he said, indifferently.