US push feeds Yemen's gun culture

by Thalif Deen
Asia Times
Jan 5, 2010

NEW YORK - When Yemen refused to vote in support of a United States-sponsored Security Council resolution against Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, a visibly angry US delegate turned to the Yemeni diplomat and said: "That will be the last time you will ever vote against a US resolution."

Washington's subsequent retaliation, in the aftermath of that negative vote, was predictable. The US not only downgraded its relationship with Yemen but also cut off all military aid to a country once heavily armed with Soviet weapons.

Since that much-talked-about confrontation in the Security Council chamber, there has been a dramatic turnaround in the fluctuating love-hate relationship between the two countries.

The recent aborted attempt to blow up a US plane by a Nigerian student with ties to a terrorist group in Yemen has brought the political spotlight back on a country which is proud of its gun culture.

Yemen reportedly has over 60 million handguns and small arms spread over a population of some 21 million people. Yehya al-Mutawakil, a former interior minister, was quoted as saying that everyone in Yemen is armed with handguns, while members of various tribes have gone upscale: they are armed with assault weapons, rocket launchers and submachine guns.

Ahmed al-Kibsi, a Yemeni professor, once told a British reporter: "Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun."

Between 2002 and 2008, Yemen received some US$69 million in US military aid, and 496 Yemeni military personnel were trained under the International Military Education and Training program (IMET).

William D Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New York-based New America Foundation, cites press reports to suggest that Washington will rapidly ramp up US military aid to Yemen over the next 18 months. The projected total, he said, is about $70 million, or roughly the amount provided during the entire period of former president George W Bush's administration.

"US military aid to Yemen is a double-edged sword," Hartung told Inter Press Service (IPS).

On the one hand, the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has participated in strikes against al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-inspired groups within and around its borders. On the other hand, he said, "The Yemeni government is one of the most unstable regimes in the world, and there is a danger that US weapons and training could be turned against US interests if there is a change in government there."

Indeed, the US and Britain shut their embassies in the capital, Sana’a, on Sunday after security threats from a Yemen-based al-Qaeda group that has claimed responsibility for the foiled Christmas day attack on a trans-Atlantic passenger jet. On its website, the US Embassy said the closure was "in response to ongoing threats by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to attack American interests in Yemen". The UK embassy made no comment.

The administration of President Barack Obama suspects that the so-called "al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula", based in Yemen and which took responsibility for the aborted attack on the US airline on Christmas day, worked closely with the Nigerian would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Administration officials have expressed fears that Yemen is fast becoming a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The United Nations has categorized Yemen as one of the world's 49 least developed countries (LDCs), describing it as one of the poorest of the world's poor. Resource-starved Yemen is the only Middle Eastern nation that is an LDC, ranking 153 on the UN's Human Development Index of 192 member states.

About 45% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations, while the country's total population, with one of the world's highest growth rates, is expected to reach 40 million over the next two decades.

When North and South Yemen buried their political differences in May 1990 to become a single country - the Republic of Yemen - the merger was cynically described as "two poor countries becoming one poor country".

Currently, the US provides funding for child survival and health, development assistance, and financing for narcotics control and anti-terrorism activities - besides military aid and military education and training. The US State Department says that US-funded programs will improve the capacity of the Yemeni counter-terrorism unit, special forces and the coastguard to conduct security missions and support US counter-terrorism goals and develop the government's capability to secure and control its borders.

The government, which is battling an armed insurgency in the south, is also receiving US funds to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Hartung told IPS that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was also involved in counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen, at an unknown budgetary cost.

"It is also possible that a more visible US role in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen could provide a rallying cry for extremists seeking to garner support for terrorist activities originating there," he said.

Hartung said the Obama administration "is essentially initiating a low-level war in Yemen with little or no public discussion about its potential consequences".