How Yemen Beat The United States | Yemen Vs. Empire 4

The war on terror contains horrors. Today’s video was almost two years in the making, but I think it’s worth the wait. To truly tease out the strands that have led to the mess that is today’s Yemen, I had to dive deep into the US war on terror in Yemen. It didn’t create today’s mess entirely, but it exacerbated it mightily. And as this video shows, it’s impossible to see what we did there as anything other than a ludicrous failure. Research for this video also led me to a review of the War on Terror in Somalia, which is, incredibly, even worse. I hope to get around to making a video about that one of these decades.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

In 2024 Yemen has stormed back to the top of the world’s headlines. The war in the Middle East has provided Yemen’s Houthi government with a massive opportunity. With every Red Sea ship they strike in the name of Gaza, they build legitimacy internally and across the Arab world, and possibly even internationally. This is not the first time US mistakes have provided massive opportunities to those who rule Yemen. Yemen’s current leaders are doing a good job at profiting from the current catastrophe, but we can look to recent history to see that what’s good for Yemen’s leaders is often not so good for Yemen’s people. So today, in the fourth episode of our series chronicling the country’s battle against empire we humbly present How Yemen beat the US Terror War.

This video will cover the period between September 11th, 2001, and 2014, nominally the last peaceful years before Yemen’s current war. Over this period Yemen became more of a focus for the United States than it had ever been before. The world hegemon tried to shape Yemen in accordance with our interests, and use the country as a free fire zone in our war against Al Qaeda. It’s now clear that Yemen’s leaders then and now, made complete fools of us. It’s an embarrassing story to recount, but if you want to understand anything about today’s Yemen, you have to understand the way that 9-11, and the US’s overreaction to it impacted the country. And that’s what we will explain today.

The 1990s were pretty awful for Yemen. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was maybe the only person in the country whose position improved over the course of the decade. He and his ruling troika had managed to tame not just the south, but also the traditionally more financially independent public of the North, thanks to a series of disasters that Saleh himself had played a rather large role in creating. This will be a theme across the next two videos. Do events work out well for the Yemeni public? Or do they work out well for Yemen’s leaders? These two possibilities are very much not the same thing. 9-11 provided both challenges and opportunities for President Saleh, after his ruinously successful 1990s.

Saleh had survived 11 tumultuous years as the President of North Yemen, but in 1990 he found himself having to share power in a newly unified country. The prospects for unification looked good, until Saleh’s management of the first gulf war derailed everything. Normally Yemen’s opinion on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait wouldn’t have mattered much, but the country was unlucky enough to have a rotating seat on the UN security council at the worst possible time. In November 1990, Yemen voted against a resolution giving Saddam Hussein another ultimatum and was instantly punished, losing hundreds of millions in development aid. Even worse, Saudi deportation of at least 700,000 workers caused a catastrophic end of remittances, and a massive increase in unemployment. Yemen unified in May 1990. Saleh’s catastrophic UN vote was just a few months later in November 1990, making a peaceful unification process much more difficult. You can make a solid argument that Yemen has never recovered from Saudi and US retribution for that 1990 vote.

In the last episode we covered the failure of the peaceful unification process, through the 1993 election and the 1994 civil war. It’s important to emphasize how central radical Islam was to Saleh’s victory in both of these struggles. The Islah party of today is more separate from Al Queda and Jihadi elements, but in 1993, when it was new, returning fighters from Afghanistan, and deported Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia were key pillars of the party’s success.

The Islah party was essential in marginalizing the Southern oriented Yemeni Socialist Party in the 1993 election. And when the desperate Southerners opted for civil war in 1994, veterans of the Afghan Jihad were a key part of the savage crushing of the South as well as the sack of Aden.

So you may be getting a sense of how awkward 9-11 was going to be for President Saleh. But before 2001, the catastrophic end to Yemen’s mini 70s & 80s golden age meant more power for Saleh, not less.

The recently developed Yemeni oil industry had proven to be too small to bring prosperity to the Yemeni people, but it was initially enough to supercharge the patronage networks Saleh used to control the country.

After the mid 1990s Yemen was slowly welcomed back into the good graces of Saudi Arabia and the international community with a renewed focus on international development. But the privatization waves encouraged by the IMF and the world bank also served to enrich Saleh and his cronies.

Unlike the 1980s when Saudi and international money flowed to the Yemeni public more broadly, now most of that money flowed through Saleh. Yemen’s president looked very secure, and through him, so did Saudi control of its very poor Southern neighbor. But this was all much less stable than it looked, and 9-11 eventually tipped the whole structure over.

Saleh was dependent on a lot of radical Islamic elements that all of a sudden went from being fun links to the Saudis to being the US hegemon’s enemy #1. Yemen was so chock full of Al Qaeda that it became a counterterror focus a full 11 months before September 11th. The USS Cole bombing, an early demonstration of the absurd vulnerability of US Navy surface ships in the 21st century, was carried out by a couple Al Qaeda members in a small fiberglass motorboat. They managed to kil 17 US sailors. This brought a flood of US FBI agents to Yemen. Saleh felt he had to let these US government officials in, but he seemed to see it as his duty to keep the investigation from yielding anything. Al Qaeda was so interweaved with his networks of tribal and Saudi funded power, that going after it seriously would jeopardize his own position. Saleh even bragged about his obstruction in an interview with Al Jazeera on September 5, 2001. This changed dramatically one week later.

Bush with us or against us clip

Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990. He initially made a huge show of his loyalty to the war on terror. And most agree that for the first few years, that loyalty was real.

In November of 2001 Saleh flew to Washington, DC to meet with Bush and demonstrate his loyalty. He was given a list of names of Al Qaeda operatives, and told to get them, no matter how politically difficult it might be. Saleh went to work with the blunt Instruments that he had as a dictator at the center of a heavily armed tribal network. This entailed mass arrests and bloody engagements carried out by a not particularly professional army.

On November 3, 2002, Yemen was the stage for the opening of a dark new chapter in US and world history. Marib province was the site of the first predator drone strike outside of Afghanistan. Or at least the first one we know about. The drone war has since expanded to dozens more countries that we are not officially at war with. The US had spent a year building out its special forces and drone facilities in Djibouti and elsewhere, and were now prepared to turn the entire world into a battlefield as journalist Jeremy Scahill has documented. For 22 years now the United States has assumed the right to attack an expanding number of countries, sometimes with their government’s permission, sometimes not.

Saleh approved this historic first strike in the US’s continuing drone war, but he did so with the understanding that the US would deny its involvement. Yemen’s President knew that open acquiescence in US strikes would hurt his legitimacy, and the US military establishment agreed. Unfortunately, deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, a famous asshole, publicly announced US involvement a few days later. President Saleh was enraged, and was very open about his sense of betrayal. This was a growing dynamic for Saleh’s remaining 9 years in power. Saleh needed the US money, but with every US attack he allowed his position got more and more tenuous.

Saleh was initially well rewarded for this loyalty. The development money that had been stripped away in 1990 was instantly restored and increased. More importantly, and perniciously, the amount of military funding for counterterrorism increased massively, becoming a key pillar of Saleh’s power. But by 2005 Washington, DC analysts were declaring counterterror victory in Yemen.

I think the brief Yemen victory had more to do with the fact that all the Al Qaeda guys flew to Iraq to fight us there than anything we did in Yemen, but that’s not the way Washington, DC talked about it. Many believe that this initial success taught Saleh a really bad lesson.

He was getting to like all that counterterrorism money. When DC briefly declared victory in Yemen, that counterterror money slowed down. Saleh visited Washington in 2005, and he was surprised to find that instead of being celebrated for his great success, he was castigated for his corruption, and the amount of money Yemen was receiving was cut. This gave rise to a perverse incentive we have seen all over the US Terror War, from the Sahel to Northern Virginia. To keep the US money flowing, it became important to Saleh that Al Qaeda not be defeated. By the mid 2000s the oil money had stopped growing, and Saleh needed that US counterterror money to keep his patronage networks healthy.

Nobody has been able to prove Saleh’s direct responsibility for what happened next, but many people have their suspicions. In November 2005 Saleh was humiliated and stripped of a lot of US funding on a trip to Washington DC. And three months later in February 2006, 23 Al Qaeda members escaped from a Yemeni prison.

It’s the absurd, Shawshank Redemption style Hollywood nature of this escape that still leaves everybody puzzled. Why were all the Al Qaeda captives kept in a single cell? How were they able to spend months digging a tunnel undetected? Gregory D. Johnsen’s book the Last refuge has an amusing chapter on the ridiculousness of the situation. Even the escapees believe that only divine intervention could have kept the guards from noticing the piles of dirt all over their cell block. Was it divine intervention? Or presidential intervention?

Regardless, Saleh got exactly what he wanted out of the prison escape. The freed Al Qaeda prisoners quickly went back to work carrying out horrific terror attacks that won Saleh new streams of US money. The attacks were never popular with the public. Yemenis questioned why Al Qaeda killed so many Muslims, and few could see why Yemeni soldiers needed to be collateral damage in a war against America.

As with most regions during the US terror war, it was the US military that kept Al Qaeda going, and staffed with new recruits. The 1,000 or so Yemenis that US missiles have killed over the past 20 years may not seem like much by current, Israeli standards. But it was more than enough to maintain a baseline of anti-American rage.

Spectacular fuck-ups, like the December 17, 2009 attack on Al-Majala, where US cluster bombs murdered at least 44 civilians to kill a handful of Al Qaeda suspects, remain key selling points in Jihadi recruitment in Yemen down to today.

I blame Ali Abdullah Saleh for a lot, but it’s kind of hard to blame him for Yemen’s still persisting Al Qaeda problem. He responded to the incentives he was given. More than anything else, Yemeni Jihadism was built by the US-Saudi war in Afghanistan. Saleh was just dancing on the heads of snakes, as he famously put it, trying to run his country, and he was using the tools the US and Saudi Arabia had given him. It wasn’t really his fault that all of a sudden on 9-11 one of the snakes had turned out to be more poisonous than expected.

President Saleh may not have realized what a bad deal he was getting. Yes, renewed US terror war in his country meant streams of new funding, but every Al Majala he had to justify or cover up chipped away at his legitimacy. This would become very clear with the Arab Spring in 2011, but it was already becoming obvious in Northern Yemen all the way back in 2004.

What I do blame Saleh for is the fact that he used all that money the US provided, not to fight Sunmi Al Qaeda, but mostly to fight Al Qaeda’s sworn enemies the Zaydi Shia Houthis. It was Saleh’s idiotic repression campaigns that drove the Houthis from cave-dwelling insurgents to control of the majority of the country in just ten years.

As we discussed in earlier chapters, the Houthi movement was yet another reaction to the Saudi infiltration of Yemen’s religion, which stepped up dramatically in the 1980s due to the Afghan war. In Yemen the Zaydi Shia and Sunni sects traditionally lived happily together and even worshipped together. Zaydi Shiism was the traditional religion of Yemen’s ruling class, but that class had been discredited by the corruption of the last imams, and the long civil war. It was the spread of intolerant Saudi Wahhabism, with all of its classic cemetery destroying fervor, that gave the old Zaydi ruling class back some of its legitimacy.

The Saudi choice to fund a Sunni Salafi religious center, the Dar Al-Hadith, in the center of Sadah, the heartland of the Zaydi Shia faith, was a particularly egregious provocation. But Saudi supported Islamic centers were popping up all over the country, peaking at 1200 separate centers in 1996. (Lackner p.130)

The Houthis were just one family among many that was involved in the Zaydi Shia revival of the 80s and 90s. What made the Houthe family the leaders of the movement was martyrdom. In the first of what would become 6 northern wars between 2004 and 2010, Hussein Al-Houthi was killed by government forces while trying to surrender. His young brother Abdul-malik Al Houthi must have been greatly saddened by this death, not knowing that it would eventually make him the most powerful man in Yemen.

Blinded by the way that US money had strengthened his military, Saleh kept assuming that he could overpower the Houthi movement through force. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The US government had a lot of money to spend on counter-terrorism, and the US government is also very stupid. Between 2006 and 2011, as the threat of wahhabi Al Queda elements in Yemen grew, Saleh used escalating counter-terror budgets from the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis, the natural enemy of Wahhabism.

Now I don’t want to over-sell the religious aspect here. The Houthis were born as a religious movement, and they were the sworn enemies of Saudi Arabia and Al Queda for primarily religious reasons. But the power of the Houthis isn’t born from just religion. When war with the Yemeni state started back in 2004, the Houthis were a small group with limited power in some parts of a few Northern provinces. A larger slice of the Zaydi Shia public may have been sympathetic to their cause, but nobody thought it was worth fighting over. What changed this was the escalating brutality of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As documented by anthropologist Marieke Brandt in her invaluable history of the Houthi conflict.

Yemeni government forces would respond to a Houthi provocation, be it a bombing or just a protest, with overwhelming force. It wasn’t subtle, one of Saleh’s attacks on his own people was officially named, I kid you not, operation scorched earth. This scorched earth approach would inevitably kill people unaffiliated with the Houthis, which brought their entire tribal coalition into the fight against the government for purposes of revenge. This story was repeated over and over. Between 2004 and 2011, the insurgency grew from a few hundred guerilla fighters to an army of tens of thousands that controlled much of Northern Yemen.

There are plenty of Sunnis in the Houthi movement today. It may have been about religion at the start, but it became a reaction to brutality. By 2008, Houthi rebels had made it from the caves of Sada to threatening the suburbs of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. By 2009 this conflict had spun out of Saleh’s control to the degree that the Saudis had to intervene directly to save him.

When the sixth war between the central government and the Houthis ended in February 2010, the Houthis controlled all of Sadah province and significant chunks of the neighboring Amran and Al-Jawf provinces as well. Everybody expected the peace to only be temporary, nothing had really been resolved. But instead of resuming hostilities in 2011, as had happened in the six prior years, the Houthis sat back and watched Saleh’s regime collapse under the pressures of the Arab Spring.

Meanwhile, the fight in Iraq had died down, and Yemen was becoming a hub of Al Qaeda action again. New US president Barack Obama, inaugurated in January 2009, was interested in switching the US terror war to a calmer, less US soldier intensive emphasis on targeted assassination. Yemen, with its large territory, weak, easily bullied government, and large population of Islamic radicals was perfect for Obama’s new approach.

On Christmas day 2009, the US war on Yemen went into overdrive thanks to a young, failed terrorist from Nigeria that history remembers as the “Underwear Bomber”. The youngster had gotten his training, and his innovative but failed weapon in Yemen. One shudders to imagine what would have happened if he had successfully blown up that plane over Detroit, but the fact that the plot had gotten as far as it did made Yemen a larger priority for the US government than it had ever been before.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen with deep Yemeni roots was also an Obama administration priority. Awlaki was an opponent of Al Qaeda directly after 9-11, but US military invasions, and years of personal harassment from the US, British and Yemeni governments radicalized him. The fact that his sermons were in English, and therefore available to more Western Muslims, struck the US government as particularly annoying. It’s an open question whether he was ever that important to Al Qaeda or terrorism more generally, and he will never get a trial to sort that out. Anwar al-Awlaki became the first US citizen openly and intentionally murdered by our government without any due process at all, setting a horrific precedent that’s sure to be abused in future. The hunt for Awlaki, which also murdered his entirely innocent US Citizen son, in a separate attack, chipped further away at Saleh’s legitimacy.

Anwar was a prominent member of the powerful Awlaki tribe, and the whole years long dance of pursuit, and eventual due process free murder in 2011 demonstrated that even powerful Yemenis were pawns in Saleh’s humiliating attempts to cater to the United States.

There were rewards of course. By the end of his presidency in 2011, US military aid amounted to 10s of millions of dollars a year, an immense amount for such a poor country. Unfortunately for Saleh, the tempo of US bombings and the outcry around them increased as well. With horrific US attacks like al-Majala and many others ripping through Yemeni civilians, it was getting harder and harder to make the case that he was at all interested in the welfare of the Yemeni people. All of his new military hardware wasn’t helping against the Houthis either, whose influence was growing with every round of battle.

All the US counterterrorism money wasn’t just destabilizing Saleh’s treatment of the Houthis, it was also exacerbating a succession crisis at the top of Yemen’s power structure. For decades, Saleh had run Yemen in a sort of troika with his kinsman Ali Mohsen and Shaykh Abdullah Al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashed tribal confederation. 9-11 money destabilized this too. In 2007, Shaykh Abdullah died, and Saleh started trying to push the old tribal leaders’ sons out of power using his beefed up military. Saleh’s own sons and nephews were given prestigious positions in Yemen’s newly prosperous counter terror forces. Ali Mohsen was given the thankless job of fighting the Houthis in the North. It is just a rumour, but with Saleh it’s not very hard to believe that he might, at some points in the Sadah wars, have been helping the Houthis humiliate Ali Mohsen to undermine his old allies position in favor of Saleh’s sons and nephews. By 2011, Both the al-Ahmar leaders of the Hashed tribal coalition and Ali Mohsen were looking for ways to undermine Saleh, and keep his sons from becoming hereditary dictators. Which brings us to the Arab Spring.

On December 17th, 2010, a street vendor in the Mediterranean country of Tunisia set himself on fire, launching a region wide protest movement that quickly unseated the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents. Saleh didn’t go as easily, but the regional uprising energized an already present street protest movement. A much wider slice of the Yemeni people eagerly took to the streets in early 2011, and demanded the overthrow of the regime.

On March 18, 2011 Yemeni security services massacred mostly peaceful protesters in the heart of Sanaa. A few days later, Ali Mohsen took his sections of the military and joined the opposition, as did the Ahmar brothers and the Islah party they then controlled, making the fall of Saleh look inevitable.

What followed was a couple very hopeful looking years for Yemen. Previously marginalized groups, including women, advocates of greater regional autonomy, and many more began to be heard. A National Dialogue Conference was supposed to produce a better constitution and a better government. But by the end of 2014 it had all ended in tears. Those tears became an endless flood over the next decade.

In the next episode we will cover how the Gulf Monarchies, and a range of other foreign actors mismanaged this transition, but for today I want to focus on the result, because it illustrates just how badly the US lost its terror war in Yemen.

Between 2001 and 2011 the United States poured money and bombs onto Yemen, promising US taxpayers that it would lead to a more secure region and a safer United States. Saleh took this money and created the Houthi threat that is currently humiliating the US Navy and is more or less blockading the Suez Canal.

But at least Saleh got what he deserved in 2011, right? Not quite. Saleh successfully dragged out his fall from power across most of 2011. In the process he survived an assassination attempt, and extracted a massive concession from his enemies. Some see this concession as the decision that did the most to ensure the failure of all that followed. In November of 2011, he did finally sign power over to his hapless Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. But in return Saleh was allowed to stay in Yemen, in control of his ill gotten wealth, and his deep connections in the Yemeni military and political scene.

After 2011 the rapid rise of the Houthis seemed to slow. Saleh and the deep injustices of his endless reign had been the main target of their rising. Now that he was gone, more progressive elements of the movement were willing to work peacefully to bring about a more just outcome.

For a variety of reasons, mostly the vested interests of Yemeni elites and foreign powers, that process failed. And failed miserably. Across 2014, the Hadi government tottered and failed spectacularly. The Houthis, supposedly just a bunch of tribesmen with machine guns, were able to take the capital Sanaa on September 21, 2014, with very little resistance from the Yemeni military that the US had done so much to build up over the past 10 years. Houthi success initially seemed mystifying.

The answer to this riddle was simple. After spending a decade nominally trying to destroy them, Ali Abdullah Saleh had allied with his northern antagonists in a final bid to return to power. What’s insane is that it worked, at least initially.

By the early months of 2015 the Saleh Houthi alliance had taken over almost the entire country, driving so-called President Hadi to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia. Saleh’s military forces, so richly funded by the US government, were now allied with, and would eventually be taken over by the Houthis. Saleh had humiliated every international actor who had invested in the transition process, from the United Nations to the USA, and the Gulf Monarchies. Tragically, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates refused to accept this result and launched a horrific war they both lost, but not before murdering hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. We will finally discuss this topic in How Yemen beat Saudi Arabia, coming sometime soon. Until then it’s worth reflecting on how incredibly badly the US terror war turned out for US interests, how it worked out really well for Yemen’s leaders, while also creating immense suffering for the Yemeni people.

We were worried about a few dusty radicals, carrying out, or inspiring lone wolf attacks on the United States. So we spent a decade pouring counter terror money into a Yemeni military that has now taken the Suez Canal away from the United States and the world economy. The US attempt to control Yemen has ended just as badly for us as it did for the Ottomans, the Egyptians, the British and the Soviets. I would like to say we have learned something from this experience, but I kind of doubt it.