The US Proxy War in Yemen

March 29, 2012 4:09 pm

Whilst the mainstream media has recently been bombarding the average viewer or reader with war stories from Syria, Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan, the war in Yemen is hardly getting any attention. Indeed neither are any of Washington’s other proxy wars, which also include operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan[1]. However, US policy makers have been intent on stressing the importance of the war in Yemen, with James R. Clapper, the US Director of National Intelligence, calling AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), who are based in Yemen, the single greatest threat to the US homeland[2]. Investigative Journalist Jeremy Scahill claims that this is a gross overstatement of the potential threat of AQAP and says that the prominence that AQAP are being given in America’s war on terror is laughable[2]. It is not hard to see why, as AQAP has only been linked with two terrorist attempts, both failed.

However, this has not stopped the US from bombing towns in Yemen and providing over 300 million dollars of military aid to the Saleh regime over the past 5 years. The first bombing under President Obama took place on the 17th of December in 2009, in the small town of Al Majala, Abyan province[2]. At the time of the attack, the Yemeni government claimed responsibility for it, proudly stating that it had killed 46 Al Qaeda operatives. As was later uncovered by Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, the bombings were in fact carried out by the US Navy, which used Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which the Yemeni military had in its arsenal[3]. Furthermore, of the 46 people who were killed, not one of them had any links to Al Qaeda and only 3 were young men[3]. The rest were women, children and elderly. All were civilians, living in one of the poorest towns in Yemen. On top of all of this, Wikileaks cables revealed that, the at the time General Petreaus and President Ali Abdullah Saleh met to discuss deliberately lying to the Yemeni people about who had carried out the act. Also discussed in the meeting was a 150 million dollar increase in yearly military aid to Yemen[3].

The exposure of this lie was the first incident that put Abdulelah Haider Shaye on Washington’s radar. In January of 2011, a Yemeni court that was set up by the Saleh regime convicted him on terror related charges and sentenced him to 5 years in prison[4]. However, due to a popular outcry against the legitimacy of the court, which was also condemned by many human rights organisations for providing fabricated evidence, Saleh was prepared to pardon Abdulelah Haider Shaye. The then president of the country made a U-turn when he received a direct phone call from President Obama, who urged him to keep the journalist in jail[4]. This is yet another move in the Obama administration’s policy of cracking down on whistleblowers and journalists, both nationally and internationally, who expose anything that they deem should not be known by the general public.

Although the US has always claimed to be the champion of democracy when it comes to foreign policy, its actions have consistently indicated quite the opposite. For this reason, secrecy has become important for the US, especially concerning its actions around the world. Ali Abdullah Saleh saw that the there was an opportunity to exploit Washington’s paranoia concerning terrorism and their willingness to provide counterterrorism funding to anyone who claimed to support the US. The capital, Sana’a, used Washington as its cash cow for several years, and continues to do so under new President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi. The fact that this funding has been going towards Saleh’s personal army, the counter terrorism unit run by his nephew and the republican guards run by his son[2], doesn’t seem to bother the Obama administration. This is more disturbing when you take into account the fact that these units have never been used in a counterterrorism operation, but were used extensively to suppress the youth revolution in 2011. When Saleh felt that the US was ignoring him, terrorists would escape from a prison, or capture a city. Abdul Ghani, a well connected political analyst, asserts that Saleh let the city of Zinjibar fall[5].

On May 27th 2011, militants calling themselves Ansar Al Sharia seized the city of Zinjibar and began exercising Sharia Law[5]. Many experts, as well as the Yemeni government, claim that Ansar Al Sharia is just a branch of Al Qaeda, which decided to rebrand in order to rid itself of the stigma associated with the name Al Qaeda. Despite this, they have the support of many of the local population[5]. This is due to several factors. First of all, the people of Yemen have grown tired of a government that neglects them and their basic human needs; Ansar al Sharia have restored electricity, repaired roads, distributed food and have enforced some sort of law and order, which, although

harsh (punishments include the severing of limbs of thieves and the beheading of suspected spies), the residents claim is better than no law and order. Also, the fact that this government was doing nothing, and seemingly supporting the US bombings that killed many civilians, and that have continued since that first bombing of Al Majala, meant that Ansar Al Sharia were welcomed in the province of Abyan[5].  Another important factor to take into account is the fact that local tribes, which hold a significant amount of power in Yemen, have nothing against AQAP. AQAP do not bother them, so why should they care? To the people of Yemen, the extrajudicial killing of innocent civilians by the American military is terrorism[5].

Has anything changed now that Yemen has a new president? All the indicators seem to point to ‘no’. Hadi came to power in an election in late February, however, the term “election” is misleading. The voters had a choice between ‘yes’ on ‘no’ in a one candidate election. If Hadi received one vote, he became president2. Hadi voted. Both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have given their support to this “transition to democracy”[6] [7], which they praise for being peaceful, apparently ignoring the more than 2000 people that were estimated to have been killed in the uprising that removed him Saleh from office[8]. The former president, however, will continue to exercise a lot of power within the new administration[2]. The reason that Obama took so long to support the overthrow of Saleh, is because he was unsure about whether or not a new president would continue to work with the US as cooperatively as Saleh had in the past[5]. Hadi has ensured Obama, that if anything, cooperation on the counterterrorism and security front will increase[9]. The new government has not been viewed favourably by the majority of the Yemeni people, and has riled up the separatist sentiment in the south[9].

The United States’ continuous bombings of Yemen have angered the local population and have fostered a sympathetic local stance towards AQAP and Ansar Al Sharia. The Obama administration is, in fact, increasing the prominence of terrorist groups, who use the deaths of civilians as recruiting tools. Washington is accomplishing the opposite of its stated objective by supporting a corrupt government(Saleh was also hosted at a 5 star hotel in Washington, before returning to Yemen to officially cede power to Hadi[3]), a corrupt election and the illegitimate jailing of one of Yemen’s most important journalists. Secrecy, and a worldwide crackdown on journalists and whistleblowers to ensure this secrecy, has been a blatant characteristic of the Obama administration’s foreign and domestic policy. Not only that, but the systematic assassination of targets without trial, often involving the deaths of many civilians, including his own citizens[2], has become a staple of Obama’s worldwide war.

Yemen is only one example of many. Why is the Obama administration waging secret wars whilst trying to ensure that journalists are not able to properly report on them? Is it truly to do with counterterrorism, stability and democracy? No. The policy makers in Washington are not stupid enough to have failed at this on so many levels. They are in fact succeeding; it is all about dominion, control and ensuring that local governments are cooperative. They are also succeeding in keeping the general population from knowing all of this, by keeping the mainstream media from reporting on these issues properly. However, the efforts of reporters such as Abdulelah Haider Shaye and Jeremy Scahill have ensured that they are not succeeding as well on this front.


[1] Lendman , Stephen. “Washington Preparing for More War.” Indybay. Indybay, 19 03 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[2] Scahill, Jeremy. “Jeremy Scahill: U.S. Has Ignited Islamist Uprising in Impoverished, Divided Yemen.” Democracy Now. Democracy Now, 16 02 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[3] Scahill, Jeremy. “Jeremy Scahill investigates the disastrous American War in Yemen.” Youtube. Al Jazeera, 15 03 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[4] Scahill, Jeremy. “Why is President Obama Keeping Yemeni Journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in Prison?.” Democracy Now. Democracy Now, 15 03 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[5] Scahill, Jeremy. “Washington’s War in Yemen Backfires.” thenation. The Nation, 14 02 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[6] Laura, Kasinof. “Obama Offers Support for Peaceful Transfer of Power in Yemen.” nytimes. New York Times, 19 02 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[7] “Foreign Office Minister visits Yemen.” Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 05 03 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. < Fc>.

[8] Al-Haj, Ahmed. “Yemen Death Toll: Over 2,000 Killed In Uprising .” huffingtonpost. The Huffington Post, 18 03 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

[9] Lina, Yang. “Yemen swears in new president, vows to continue battle against al-Qaida.” xinhuanet. Xinhuanet News, 27 02 2012. Web. 27 Mar 2012. <>.

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