February 9, 2010
Cross Section of Yemen's War
Sometimes US officials must feel like putting a cruise missile through the Doha headquarters of Al Jazeera. They have themselves to blame though since America invented the government-media dynamic and gave the Muslim world little choice except to respond in kind.
Al Jazeera simply copied America’s method to counteract the US media, successfully accomplishing its goal in a relatively short life-span. Government officials, analysts, and various players from Muslim states and Europe now form a conventional media front while Islamic militants and terrorists function as the irregular, surprise attack.
Though latter possess limited recourse to counter the US politico-military-media onslaught directed towards Yemen, America has limited means to counteract the following story. Al Jazeera plays well in Yemen, where it ranks first among foreign news sites and 21st overall in Internet traffic, according to Alexa. America had no media presence in Yemen.
Interaction between these forces provides a fresh example of the many dimensions found in 21st century warfare. In an exclusive interview, designated "global terrorist" Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki unloads on US intervention.
Asked right off, “Why do you think the Americans want to kill you?” he replies, “Because I am a Muslim and I promote Islam. The charge is ‘incitement;’ my relationships with Nidal Hasan, Umar Farouk and some 9/11 attackers, and now I am accused of being linked to 14 cases. All this comes as part of the attempt to liquidate the voices that call for defending the rights of the Umma [Muslim nation].”
But al-Awlaki demonstrates his savvy by avoiding the usual hell-scorning of al-Qaeda commanders - a tape from AQAP deputy Said Ali al-Shihri surfaced on Al Jazeera the next day. Though that tape hasn’t been verified and al-Shihri was last reported in Yemen custody, the message checks out.
"American and Crusader interests are everywhere and their agents are moving everywhere,” a man claiming to be al-Shihri says on video. “Attack them and eliminate as many enemies as you can. I swear to God, we will open up for them doors of hell on the ground, which will be the key to our victory, where we will cut the tails of the crusaders; destroy the dreams of crusade and ruin the desires of the Jews in the region."
Instead al-Awlaki adopts a legal strategy, logically rather than emotionally or religiously attacking America. Under declared threat of CIA assassination, al-Awlaki claims Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as, “my fellow mujahid... and yes there was some contact between me and him, but I did not issue a fatwa allowing him to carry out this operation.”
He’s asked, “Does describing him as a "mujahid" mean you support what he did?”
“Yes,” he responds. “I support what Umar Farouk has done after I have been seeing my brothers being killed in Palestine for more than 60 years, and others being killed in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And in my tribe too, US missiles have killed 17 women and 23 children, so do not ask me if al-Qaeda has killed or blown up a US civil jet after all this. The 300 Americans are nothing comparing to the thousands of Muslims who have been killed.”
Though al-Awlaki’s opinions may be rejected at Yemen’s national level, he’s clearly reasoning with people to appeal to a broader spectrum of Muslim society. Of Abdulmutallab’s target he says, “It would have been better if the plane was a military one or if it was a US military target.”
However, “The American people are the ones who have voted twice for Bush the criminal and elected Obama who is not different from Bush as his first remarks stated that he would not abandon Israel, despite the fact that there were other anti-war candidates in the US elections, but they won very few votes. The American people take part in all its government's crimes. If they oppose that, let them change their government. They pay the taxes which are spent on the army and they send their sons to the military, and that is why they bear responsibility.”
Such logic can be heard not just in Muslim countries, but corners of America as well. At this point al-Awlaki switches to capitalizing on Yemeni discontent for their own government, returning to the emotional pillorying usually reserved for Washington.
“The Yemeni government sells its citizens to the United States, to earn the ill-gotten funds it begs the West for in return for their blood. The Yemeni officials tell the Americans to strike whatever they want and ask them not to announce responsibility for the attacks to avoid people's rage, and then the Yemeni government shamelessly adopt these attacks.”
He then connects this missile with an appeal to the Yemeni Clerics Association, who issued a fatwa for jihad in the event of direct US intervention.
“It is a good fatwa, but it is incomplete and conditioned,” he says. “The United States has entered by all means, even if it has not sent its army like what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does not dare to [send troops] because the Yemeni people will ‘swallow’ them and will make them forget the terrors they have seen in Iraq and still face in Afghanistan.”
al-Awlaki selects this argument as his point of attack. His primary objective is to make explicitly clear that America has directly intervened in Yemen’s internal affairs, is shielding President Ali Abdullah Saleh from popular pressure, and that the first phase of imperialism is well underway. This perception is America’s weakest point, or one of the few.
Al Jazeera asks, “You accuse the Yemeni government of lying while it publicly rejects any direct intervention. Does this mean the country is occupied?
“Undoubtedly,” answers al-Awlaki. “The sea is occupied; the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, Suqatra island, and the air is occupied by the drones. There is also US presence on the land, violating the state sovereignty under the pretext of the embassy's practices. There is also military presence training the interior forces to fight Muslims and kill the sons of Yemen. The Americans were training Yemeni forces to kill the sons of Yemen. This is occupation, Yemen is occupied.”
With one slice al-Awlaki reveals the many cross sections of warfare in Yemen.
“Direct” and “indirect” are two words getting a lot of air time lately, but it’s impossible to argue that America isn’t directly intervening politically and militarily in Yemen. A main part of the equation is Yemen’s President Saleh low public approval and is viewed as exchanging US support for favoritism, a show that's been going on since before 9/11.
Indeed, President Obama sent Saleh a letter in September because he’s all that can be trusted, tenuous as this trust is.
His letter was predated by a July meeting between Saleh and General David Petraeus, at which time the two launched a strategy long in the waiting. According to Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the two men agreed to "enhanced cooperation:” bolstering intelligence sharing and training operations and approving US aircraft, including drones.
Something feels particularly undemocratic about an unpopular president of one country and a leading general of another privately and unilaterally arranging military deals. Apparently few lessons have been learned from Musharraf's days in Pakistan.
Beyond the shaky political foundation America’s war rests on, military actions alone constitute “direct” US intervention. Drones, bombers, and fighters patrol the Yemen desert and their targets have included those the Yemen government has vetoed, like al-Awlaki, not just those approved. "Sea-borne missiles" are also approved.
Meanwhile several dozen JSOC troops, which can act as “advisers,” “trainers,” or assassinations, were inserted in December 2009, and only the most naive would believe Blackwater security personal isn't operating the country.
Then there’s Socotra, a Yemen island that US military officials speak openly of colonizing.
Newsweek reports, “U.S. officials say the island of Socotra, 200 miles off the Yemeni coast, will be beefed up from a small airstrip to a full base in order to support the larger aid program as well as battle Somali pirates.”
Obama and his military officials like Petraeus and Mullen have taken refuge in the argument that “direct” intervention is defined as “US boots” - combat troops. The plain fact is that Special Operations Forces (SOF) are combat troops who can serve non-combat roles, much like sleeper cells, and are giving new meaning to the term "dual technology."
Socotra is also officially part of Yemen so any “US boots” on it will toss what’s left of Obama’s rhetorical shield in the fire.
al-Awlaki knows all of this and just told as many Yemenis as he could, and he’s going to tell more every day. He’s also likely to use Al Jazeera to project global sermons so it’s no surprise that America wants him dead. He doesn’t just inspire or possibly orchestrate terrorist attacks - killing him is the only way to counter him.
The levels of warfare America brings to bear on Yemen are staggering: direct and indirect military warfare, and non-military warfare composed of political protection and military-economic boosters. Yet al-Awlaki and company are resisting this force through media and cultural warfare.
Real progress in Yemen is likely to elude President Obama until America decides to fight on the levels it's losing. Unfortunately supporting Yemen’s people at the risk of losing Saleh isn’t an option.