The Cheery in-flight magazine of Yemenia, the national airline of Yemen, still runs articles encouraging adventurous tourists to visit the coffee-growing region in the country's north, its terraced hilltop villages a vision of Old Arabia, and the fabled eastern valleys that were once home to the Queen of Sheba. But anyone trying to get off the beaten track in Yemen these days may find a bit too much adventure. About two-thirds of the country is out of government control and in the hands of either separatist groups or local tribes, some of which have a habit of kidnapping foreign tourists to use as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government. Such hostages were rarely harmed until this June, when nine foreigners were kidnapped including two German women and a South Korean woman whose mutilated bodies were later discovered by shepherds. After the attack, the government effectively stopped granting permission to foreigners including journalists to travel anywhere but the capital, Sana'a, and the coastal region around the port city of Aden.
In the past month, the government, which is Sunni-dominated, has stepped up its military offensive against Shi'ite rebels, known as Houthis, whom officials blame for the killings. It's a continuation of a war that began in 2004, when the government killed a Houthi leader, raising fears among Yemeni followers of the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam that they were being targeted for eradication by the government and Sunni extremists. So far, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting, mostly in the northern province of Saada. The government has used aerial bombardment and artillery to try to smash the Houthis. The alleged use of collective punishment and blockades of aid to force locals to turn in rebel fighters have prompted some agencies, such as UNICEF, to compare the campaign to the government of Sudan's actions in Darfur.
Western diplomats in Sana'a, however, suspect that the real culprits behind this year's attacks on foreigners come from the growing band of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. Under pressure in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, al-Qaeda is turning the lawless mountain areas of Yemen into a new staging area. U.S. officials and terrorism experts don't think Yemen is close to becoming a failed state like Somalia just across the Red Sea. But there are warning signs that things could get worse: the Houthi rebellion, secessionists in the south, Somali pirates menacing the coast, an economy that is overreliant on declining oil production, and a looming water crisis.
Helping Hands and Blind Eyes
Stretched around the Southern heel of the Arabian Peninsula and home to 23.8 million people compared with 28.7 million in Saudi Arabia Yemen, which came into being when North and South Yemen merged in 1990, is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Long a source of jihadis, the region sent hundreds of fighters to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and, to judge by the number of captured, killed or identified insurgents in Iraq, continues to be one of the biggest suppliers of fighters to regional conflicts. It's common knowledge in the tearooms of Sana'a and in Western embassies that the government of northern Yemen used jihadis to help defeat the south in the civil war that ended in 1994. But the symbiotic relationship between the government and al-Qaeda shifted after 9/11 and the American invasion of Iraq, when the Yemeni government worried that it too might be on the receiving end of U.S. military action. Sana'a helped the U.S. with the assassination of a leader of al-Qaeda in 2002, by missile attack from a Predator drone, even as it turned a blind eye to other extremists as long as they didn't cause trouble.