News of the shooting deaths of three American health professionals working for a Southern Baptist mission hospital in Yemen follows closely on the heels of the very public murder of a highly regarded figure in the Yemeni opposition.
Jarallah Omar, deputy secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party, was assassinated December 28, 2002, minutes after delivering a conciliatory speech to the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, known as al-Tajammu` al-Yemeni lil-Islah or simply Islah.
Initially, some Yemenis speculated that Omar’s murder could portend violence in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2003, while others assumed the shooting of a well-known secular politician was connected to a string of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Yemen. Not surprisingly, Yemeni government sources say that the man arrested for the killings of the three Americans, Abed Abd al-Razzaq Kamel, plotted his attack in tandem with Jarallah Omar’s assassination.
Public Crime, Public Confession
Omar, a prominent progressive intellectual and nationalist opposition leader, was shot in the heart just before noon on December 28, after addressing an audience of several thousand at a closed convention at the Islah party headquarters in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. Omar had helped to create an opposition coalition of the socialist left and the conservative Islamist-leaning Islah against the ruling party of President Ali Abdallah Salih in the upcoming elections, and for peaceful resolution of the nation’s troubles. The opposition hoped to win seats in the 301-member parliament with a platform calling for fair, free, rule-bound contested elections; policies to alleviate Yemen’s acute problems with public security, increasing poverty, dire water shortages and inadequate services; and a rule of law plank calling for the eradication of corruption, the protection of human rights and rights of free expression.
The accused gunman, Ali Ahmad Muhammad Jarallah, approached Omar at close range and fired several shots. Two bullets fatally wounded Omar, who died en route to the hospital. Bystander Said Shamsan, of Islah, was also injured. The assailant, Ali Ahmad Jarallah, was apprehended on the spot and taken to the nearby home of Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmar, the speaker of Parliament and an Islah party leader. There, in the presence of security officers, and on videotape, he was interrogated by 16 representatives of Yemen’s various political parties. In the afternoon, the assailant was transferred to the Criminal Investigation Department, and by the evening was finally handed over to public prosecutors. By permitting this irregular procedure, the government apparently intended to make his uncoerced confession a matter of public record.
Circumstantial evidence linked the suspect to both the radical fringe of the Islamist movement and the government. Now in his late twenties, Ali Jarallah was reportedly registered in the mid-1990s at the private, ultra-conservative al-Iman University, recently accused by the government of links to al-Qaeda. He was currently serving in the Yemeni military and told interviewers he had fought on the Salih government’s side against the socialist leadership of the former South Yemen during the 1994 civil war, in accordance with a fatwa (religious-legal ruling) issued at the time by Islah ideologue Abd al-Wahhab al-Dailami that justified the killing of Southern secessionists. The southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and North Yemen unified their systems in 1990, but negotiations over the details of unity broke down in 1994. Supported by Islah, troops under Salih’s command defeated the remnants of the PDRY army and its socialist leadership in 1994.
Although the accused killer publicly denied any partisan affiliation, the Ministry of Interior told the Yemeni news agency Saba that he was an Islahi activist who was detained for anti-government agitation through a popular mosque in 2001 by Political Security and released last year after party supporters interceded on his behalf. Other reports claimed the assailant belonged to the General People’s Congress, headed by President Salih. Journalist Ahmad al-Sufi, who was interviewed on al-Jazeera after witnessing the interrogation, suggested that the killer had not been operating alone, and may have had connections to government agencies.
The prosecution also interrogated Muhammad Abdallah al-Yadumi, secretary general of the Islah party, who, according to al-Jazeera television, had refused a Ministry of Interior offer of police protection for the annual Islah party conference on the grounds that the party could provide its own security. Yemeni reporters questioned how the assassin entered the conference, armed, without an invitation, and seated himself in the second row usually reserved for dignitaries. Denying any complicity with the assassin, Islah issued a statement threatening to sue the government for slander. The party also issued a statement calling Jarallah Omar “a martyr for democracy.”
According to excerpts from the videotape of the preliminary interrogation published in al-Ayyam, the accused assassin admitted planning to kill other prominent secular opposition figures, including some present at the Islah convention, in particular the leader of the Nasserist Union Party, Abd al-Malik al-Mikhlafi, and the Baathist leader Qasim Salam. He also said he aimed to “teach a lesson to Islah,” presumably about the mainstream religious party’s cooperation with the socialist enemy. He declined to implicate any associates.
A group calling itself “Kata’ib Abu Ali al-Harithi—The Military Wing,” known to be associated with Osama bin Laden, issued a statement on December 29 to commemorate the killing of Qa’id Sinan al-Harithi and four others by a CIA Predator drone in early November. The statement accused the “infidel” Yemeni regime of allying itself with the United States and Zionism against the Islamic world under the pretext of an anti-terror campaign. In defiance of fatwas issued by Yemeni ulama (religious scholars), the statement continued, Salih had sold out to the US. Moreover, his regime had detained and persecuted “hundreds of young men, lingering in the prisons of Political Security, some of them for years.” The group swore revenge for al-Harithi and others assassinated by the government, like Samir al-Hada and Mujalli al-Arhabi, the latter, as they claimed, being a chief negotiator between the government and the Islamists. The statement warned: “We can, as you know, get at you any time, and as we have children and relatives, so you do too.”
Jarallah Omar, Rebel and Politician
Once a guerrilla fighter, Jarallah Omar became a prominent pro-democracy activist and an early advocate of Yemeni unity who had the potential to lead a national opposition coalition. His life dramatized some of the classic fault lines in Yemeni politics and spoke to key events in contemporary Yemeni history. He was a Northerner but also a Southerner, a student of religion and of revolution. Born in the village of Kuhal in the Northern province of Ibb in 1942, he studied Islamic jurisprudence in Dhamar as an adolescent. Like many upwardly mobile male youths of his generation, he then trained as an officer in Sanaa.
During the North Yemeni civil war of 1962-1968, Omar became radicalized. Imprisoned in 1968 for leftist politics and educated there by fellow inmates and by authors such as Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, Omar left prison in 1971 to become an adversary of conventional politics. Soon thereafter, he took refuge in South Yemen, where Marxists were in power. From the south, he led the commando forces of the National Defense Forces in the North, a conglomerate of five separate groups dedicated to overthrowing the military government in Sanaa. This campaign continued after Ali Abdallah Salih came to power in 1979 following the assassination of two predecessors in 1977 and 1978. Defeated by Salih in the 1980s, many other Northern socialists escaped to South Yemen.
As a member of the politburo intimately involved in the bloody battles for control of the Socialist Party in the South in 1986, Omar sided with the victorious faction around Abd al-Fattah Ismail and Ali Salim al-Bid. He later argued that the intense regional and ideological struggle for control of the party turned so deadly because of party norms and constraints that made the airing of grievances in public prohibitive. His assessment of the devastating effects of undemocratic practices within the party led him to call for increased “pluralism” as well as North-South reconciliation. “January 1986 was a turning point,” Omar later recalled. “Why combat the North, when reforms were needed in the party itself?”
Credited as a force for Yemeni unification in 1990, Jarallah Omar served briefly as Minister of Culture in one of the post-unification governments, but resigned as partisan differences threatened the unity accords. Opposing both war and secession, he was forced to flee Yemen during the brief civil war of 1994 only to return a year later. Since then he has continued to play a vibrantly contentious role in Yemeni political life, speaking out against injustice and hosting debate sessions in his home. He became widely known as a liberal democrat devoted to the electoral process and respect for human rights.
Omar became Assistant Secretary General of the Yemeni Socialist Party in 2001, and pushed for reform within the party even as it prepared for parliamentary elections. He was a key broker of 2002 alliance between the YSP and Islah, Yemen’s main Islamist party. A popular politician prominent in a strengthened opposition, he was challenging hard-liners in his own party as well as Islah’s radical right wing, while making the ruling General People’s Congress uneasy, too.
It may never be known with certainty whether Ali Ahmad Muhammad Jarallah acted alone in killing Jarallah Omar—or, if he acted on behalf of co-conspirators, who they were. Few Arab leaders would tolerate a former rebel commander spearheading electoral opposition, and some Yemenis believe the regime, the ruling party or the security forces encouraged the assassination in order to thwart the formation of an effective opposition coalition. The other popular and plausible theory is that “jihadi” or “salafi” elements outside the political mainstream—possibly with links to al-Qaeda—have begun to target secular and liberal intellectuals along with foreign interests and Yemeni security forces. Ordinary Yemenis are mourning the death of a man who embodied a great deal of the nation’s past and its hopes for the future.
The tragic deaths of two well-respected American doctors who had spent their adult lives at the Baptist mission hospital in Jibla and a colleague, two days after the assassination of Jarallah Omar and one day after threats issued by friends of al-Qaeda, seem to point in the direction of a terror campaign directed against Yemenis and Americans alike by a rather small but quite expert reactionary underground, presumably trained in Afghanistan. Considering that the dead are an opposition politician and three American civilians living in Yemen for many years, it could be a bloody, indiscriminate campaign along the lines of those waged in the 1990s in Egypt and Algeria. The coincidence of two unprecedented and senseless crimes—a public assassination and the murder of unarmed foreigners—has left the nation in shock.
The Salih administration has contended all along that attacks on the USS Cole and the French ship the Limburg, as well as shootings and bombings in Sanaa, are aimed at destabilizing the Yemeni government and disrupting its relations with the US. Since the attack on the Cole in October 2000, US-Yemeni relations, virtually severed after Yemen failed to join the US-led war on Iraq in 1991, have steadily improved. The Yemeni government cooperated with US intelligence agencies investigating the Cole incident and with the Predator attack on a vehicle in the Yemeni desert in November 2002. Acknowledging that al-Qaeda elements found sanctuary in isolated communities along the Yemeni-Saudi frontier, Sanaa has been pleading with Washington for massive American assistance to beef up its maritime, border and domestic security. The Bush administration has begun to comply with these requests, dangling prospects of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of training and equipment annually if Yemen prosecutes the war on terror. After Spanish and American forces intercepted North Korean Scud missiles bound for Yemen earlier in December, Sanaa told US officials that it would be happy to accept American weapons instead. Today the Salih government is saying, we are in this war together.