The investigation of last October’s bombing of the USS Cole in Aden continues to irritate US-Yemeni relations. Last week, the agreement worked out between the Clinton White House and Yemeni authorities in November 2000, in which the FBI was allowed to submit questions to Yemeni investigators and observe interrogations, seemed to break down once again. Reports in American papers reiterated US accusations that Yemeni authorities were not cooperating with FBI investigators. “Senior bureau investigators say Yemen has denied them access to prominent Yemenis whom the Americans want to interview in their bid to link the attack to elements of [Osama] Bin Laden’s network in Yemen, which became a key base for him in the early 1990’s,” the New York Times stated. Yet this week, reports in the Washington Post and the English-language Yemen Times say that FBI agents have returned. Earlier reports of the FBI’s return have turned out to be false. At the beginning of August, part of the US investigative team apparently arrived only to leave shortly thereafter. The current reports in the Post and the Yemen Times have not yet appeared in the Arabic-language press in Yemen.
Quick reversals and conflicting statements in the press are indicative of the considerable tension in current US-Yemeni relations. Hot on the trail of Osama Bin Laden, its current arch-enemy, the FBI is treating the Cole investigation as an issue of US national security. US investigators remain convinced that the men awaiting trial in an Adeni prison were only part of a wider conspiracy that includes people in the Yemeni government. Last fall, a New York Times article on the case featured pictures of several prominent Yemeni officials and political leaders, suggesting that they had some role in the bombing or at least continuing links to Bin Laden. Yet no real evidence to support these charges has been presented. The only possible link to Bin Laden in the Cole case is a suspect now thought to be in Afghanistan. US investigators say he is the key to their claims. Yet US officials seem to believe that all political groups espousing Islamic rhetoric in Yemen are suspect, and subject to FBI interrogation. As in the Khobar Towers investigation concluded in June 2001, where US investigators insisted on keeping the case open in hopes of finding a smoking gun implicating Iran, in the Cole case the US foreign policy agenda takes precedence over the rule of law in a foreign country.
In Yemen, things are seen quite differently. The Yemeni government would like to try the suspects according to Yemeni law—which guarantees a speedy trial—and they resist giving US investigators access to high Yemeni officials based upon the FBI’s vague suspicions, or perhaps even prejudices. As Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi put it: “[J]ust because you have an Islamic connection does not mean that you have any relationship to the Cole bombing.” The Yemeni authorities are particularly anxious to avoid the appearance that they have surrendered national sovereignty to US investigators at a time when the confrontation in Palestine has turned public opinion sharply against US policy in the Middle East. Like the federal indictments in the Khobar Towers case, which alienated Saudi law enforcement officials, FBI actions have caused considerable resentment in Yemen.
Further complicating the issue are apparent tensions between US diplomats in Yemen and the FBI team and the repeated issuance of vague warnings about possible terrorist attacks against US interests in the Arabian Peninsula. In a series of bizarre incidents in June, following the Khobar indictments in Virginia, the FBI team in Yemen withdrew to an “unspecified” country, the consular service at the US embassy in Yemen was closed, ships of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain were sent out to sea and US Marines participating in maneuvers in Jordan were evacuated. In Yemen, American investigators announced that a group had been caught with plans to attack the US Embassy in Sana’a and asked Yemeni authorities to round up the suspects. Yemeni authorities cooperated with American demands, but then reversed themselves when the Yemeni president said that the local religious group named by the Americans posed no security threat. US credibility was further strained at a meeting for members of the American expatriate community in Yemen where US officials could cite no new evidence of a security threat justifying the embassy closing. Officials merely listed various kidnapping incidents over the last ten years and the Cole bombing. Then reports surfaced that the FBI team in Yemen had withdrawn because of differences with the US ambassador, Barbara Bodine, over a request to carry heavier weapons. The head of the FBI team had asked for greater firepower fearing a looming attack. The ambassador refused the request, citing local sensitivities to heavily armed American investigators who were supposed to be mere “enhanced” observers, and the FBI unilaterally withdrew. Needless to say, the FBI team slated to return soon to Yemen has new personnel.
Convergence of Interests
In Yemen, the constant issuance of security warnings is interpreted as political pressure on Yemeni authorities to allow US investigators free rein to pursue Yemeni officials with “links”—however tenuous—to Bin Laden. Yemeni authorities find this line of inquiry objectionable, since they share US interests in a stable security regime in the region. In recent years Yemen has normalized relations with all her neighbors, signing treaties to resolve border disputes and demarcate common borders and submitting to international arbitration to resolve a territorial dispute with Eritrea over the Hannish islands in the Red Sea. Yemeni authorities have readily cooperated in building a military relationship with the US. American soldiers led efforts to remove land mines after the civil war of 1994, US and Yemeni troops have conducted joint maneuvers, Yemeni personnel have received specialized training in the US, Yemen purchased $5 million in arms from the US and the commander of the Fifth Fleet recently traveled to Sana’a. The US Navy chose Aden as a port of call for the Cole and other ships partly to boost the economy of the Port of Aden while further improving military relations with Yemen.
The Yemeni government also shares the particular US concerns about domestic political challenges from religiously inspired groups. After the two Yemens merged in 1990, many Yemenis who had fought—with US backing—against Soviet influence in Afghanistan returned to south Yemen to continue their cause against the godless communists in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The trouble these “Afghani Arabs” caused for the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) of the south was politically convenient for the leadership of the former Yemeni Arab Republic, for it both weakened the YSP and enabled the northern leadership to claim that it was the moderate center between leftist socialists and conservative Islamists. However, after the civil war of 1994 in which the YSP was defeated, the conservative groups became the sole political rival of the victorious northern Yemeni leadership.
Going After “Extremists”
Since the war the Yemeni leadership has moved decisively to weaken Islamist political groups and gain tighter military control over its territory. When Wahhabi groups attacked mosques and other Islamic religious sites in Aden that they considered “un-Islamic” shortly after the war, the government swiftly crushed them with a large military force. Again in late 1998, when militants kidnapped foreign tourists, the government responded with force of arms, killing four hostages in the rescue mission. The leader of the militant group, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, was executed after his trial. Yemeni authorities also expelled thousands of non-Yemeni residents suspected of belonging to “extremist” groups after the war. In the elections of 1997, 1999 and 2001, the ruling party presented itself as the moderate center representing tolerance and justice against their erstwhile allies in the Yemeni Reform Group, Islah, whom they now painted as “extremist.”
In pursuit of the Cole bombing perpetrators, the Yemeni authorities also took the liberty of rounding up whomever they suspect has ties to any group opposing the government. Clearly, the Yemeni government is interested in promoting an image of inclusive tolerance of the widely divergent political, regional and religious groups in Yemen while at the same time increasing domestic stability and security, on its own terms. It has no interest in cooperating with, or even harboring, groups that actually do work closely with Bin Laden. As was widely noted in Sana’a, the Cole bombing was aimed at Sana’a as much as it was at Washington. Why US investigators insist upon their right to interrogate the upper echelons of the Yemeni regime, when the Yemenis have been very compliant in their relations with the US, is a mystery perhaps only the FBI could solve.