Yemen ups security, but skeptics remain

SANAA, Yemen — In the heart of the ancient city of Old Sanaa, Hussein, a middle-aged man, waved in the direction of an old television. “This is not Yemen,” he said.

The rolling news showed pictures of cargo planes intermixed with footage of homemade bombs. “Al Qaeda is not Yemen. This is Yemen,” he said with a broad grin, expanding his arms in a welcoming gesture.

Hussein is not alone in his skepticism that Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, as the Al Qaeda branch here is known, is so entrenched in his country. The doubts, in fact, pervade much of Yemeni society — despite evidence that last week’s bomb plot involving cargo planes bound for the United States originated here.

Even within Yemen’s government, which has been ruled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh for more than 30 years and which has been conducting security sweeps since the news broke a week ago, there appear to be doubts.

Saba, the government’s official news agency, posted a statement on its website last Friday warning the media against “rush decisions in a case as sensitive as this one and before investigations reveal the truth.”

“This has more to do with the American elections than it does with Yemen,” said Abdullah al-Faqih, a professor of political science at Sanaa University.

But increasingly, at least to Western governments, Yemen is Al Qaeda — a reality made apparent over and over again in recent years.

Only a short time ago, most Americans had scarcely heard of Yemen — an arid, desperately poor country in the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula that borders Saudi Arabia. But in December 2009, the county catapulted to the top of the international security agenda following a foiled bomb attack on a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

In response to the new terror threat, U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged more military and economic aid to help Yemen fight back the growing presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and called on Yemen’s government to step up its own security.

Authorities said Thursday they would begin an overhaul of the country’s airport security, which would include manually screening all airline cargo. And a manhunt is under way in the country’s south for the Saudi bombmaker, Ibrahim Hasan Al-Asiri, who security officials believe is behind the failed cargo bomb plot.

Al Qaeda, it seems, is also reacting to the increased attention. Also on Thursday, a car bomb tore through a market near the security headquarters of Daleh, a town in southern Yemen. Two people were killed and at least 15 others were injured in the attack.

“Eyewitnesses told me they saw the policeman park his car and head into a shop, moments later it exploded,” said Abdul Rahman, a local journalist.

The attack had all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda. On Tuesday, militants also blew up an oil pipeline in Shabwa province that was owned by a Korean company. An employee at the company said they were still assessing the damage, adding that the attack was part of “working in Yemen.”

The increased security in Sanaa, the country’s capital, has both spooked and begun to irk local residents.

“When Yemen hits the news, it's more police and checkpoints on the streets, which means fewer customers for me,” one taxi driver bristled.

Police last week arrested and then released a 22-year-old woman in connection with the cargo bombs, which were sent via UPS and FedEx from Sanaa.

Hanan Al-Samawi, a fifth-year engineering student at Sanaa University, was listening to music on her headphones when policemen stormed her house, dragging her outside without allowing her to cover her head. Her detention prompted demonstrations by fellow students on Sunday outside Sanaa University.

Yemeni authorities arrested the student after tracing her telephone number from one the shipping company used to send the explosive devices to America. Hanan is now believed to have been a victim of identity theft.

The episode has Yemenis nervously checking their pockets for their IDs.

“It is a shock to find yourself in detention for terrorist acts because of your phone number,” one engineering student said.

Analysts, meanwhile, worry the security crackdown, and especially the possibility of increased American involvement in the country’s affairs, could serve only to increase the resolve of Al Qaeda here and help spur recruitment.

A waiter at a busy restaurant, shouting over customers, perhaps put it best: “We’re always being spied on by Americans planes, so it’s high time we sent some back.”

Part of the draw to Yemen for Al Qaeda militants is its weak central government, strong tribal culture and its teetering economy — Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East — which provides ample recruiting grounds among the country’s marginalized youth.

Bans on cargo flights out of Yemen by the United States and several European countries imposed this week have shut the door on many exports that Yemen depends on to keep its struggling economy afloat, potentially exacerbating the problem, analysts said.

“The main damage from banning Yemen exports is the alienation of new investment that Yemen has been trying to get,” said Mohammed Al-Maitami, an analyst from the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa. “Yemen has been working to enhance its reputation to gain investor’s attention to improve economic growth, so these measures will certainly hurt our country.”

Even against the backdrop of increased security, life in Sanaa, which is nestled high in the mountains, continues to ramble on in its typically chaotic way. Yemeni boys are still weaving in and out of traffic with wheelbarrows full of oranges, dodging debabs — the small buses that carry the people of Sanaa to work.

But now there are Toyota pick-up trucks, mounted with machine guns, guarding courthouses and government buildings. Diplomats speed around the city with police escorts in convoys of blacked-out armored cars. And the U.S. and British embassies — both of which have been attacked in the past two years — stand like fortresses, encircled by five-meter high bombproof walls.

For his part, Hussein said that his biggest concern is not Al Qaeda — or where a parcel went last week — but where his water is going to come from tomorrow.