Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Yemen and the War on Terror


yemeni soldierThe ongoing political tumult in Yemen threatens to undermine the country as well as American counterterrorism efforts in the region. In August 2014, unrest led to Houthi militias taking over Sana’a and the formation of a new unity government, which included a range of Yemeni factions. This, however, did not last long because of a political impasse caused by the Houthis, an anti-American Shiite minority. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had previously been Vice President under Ali Saleh, and his cabinet resigned in January 2015.

For the U.S., the road to partnership with Yemen was not an easy one, and its loss could be devastating as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is just one of the many formidable threats in the region. After the first Gulf War, bilateral relations had been poor, leading Washington to terminate most of its military and economic assistance programs. Moreover, the U.S. was unsure just what the Yemeni government had known about the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole.

All that changed with the arrival of Ambassador Edmund Hull soon after September 11th. At the time, many thought Yemen might just be Washington’s next target, after Afghanistan, given that al Qaeda had made Yemen an important part of its terrorist network. This made Yemenis uneasy, to say the least. However, Hull saw Yemen as a partner and worked with President Saleh to hammer out cooperative agreements on counterterrorism as well as economic development. Hull faced interagency squabbles, a difficult president, and an assassination attempt to get the final product of a successful counterterrorism program with Yemen.

Go here to read about Ambassador Hull’s experience on 9/11.  Read Mike Metrinko’s biting assessment of the investigation of the Cole bombing and about the 1962 civil war in North Yemen.

 

“Relations were difficult, to say the least”

9-11 pentagonHULL: I should say a word about taking leave of Washington. Since I was primarily preoccupied with counterterrorism, I realized that it would be important to make the rounds in Washington; at Langley [CIA headquarters], with the FBI, the National Security Council and DOD [Department of Defense] because counterterrorism can only be addressed as interagency issue. And it so happened I was having my meetings in DOD on September 11….

I recall arriving at the Pentagon early in the morning and in the midst of going through the security checks overhearing from a TV monitor that an aircraft had flown into the World Trade Center in New York…. We went ahead with the meeting nevertheless and discussed the situation in Yemen, our future cooperation and about 30 minutes into the meeting, we felt the impact of the Boeing 737 hitting the Pentagon.

The primary U.S. interest in Yemen was the interest of counterterrorism, and Yemen had been identified by Al Qaeda as an important node in their international network. Al Qaeda used Yemen not only as a base to launch attacks in Yemen, e.g. the USS Cole attack, but also as a location to support attacks elsewhere in the world, notably the East African attack [on U.S. embassies]. The linkages also included linkages to the 9/11 attacks. In fact, one of the pieces of evidence which linked Al Qaeda to 9/11 attacks was obtained in Yemen by a very astute FBI agent who in questioning of people detained in Yemen related to the Cole attack helped establish Al Qaeda’s responsibility for 9/11.

Yemen had been ruled by President Saleh for 25 years. Saleh had come to power as a young colonel. No one had given him much chance of lasting. There had been a number of coup d’état before his takeover and most expected those to continue, but Saleh proved them wrong and proved to be a very wily politician who had established control over a very difficult political situation.

The difficulty derives in part from a relatively weak central government and very strong tribes especially in the north of the country. Saleh had, in addition, pulled off the remarkable feat of uniting northern Yemen with southern Yemen and that had happened in the early ‘90s in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union when the Marxists in Aden found themselves without a patron, with very few political options and had agreed to unity with the North. That unity had been challenged in the mid-90s when the South attempted to secede, but Saleh successfully defeated that secession and kept the country unified.

yemen map 1He relied in that on tribal support from the North and also support from the mujahidin, the Islamic fundamentalist fighters who had fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets. Therefore, there were very important and very significant links between the government in Sana’a and this radical group. That was what was giving the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) a great deal of concern in investigating the Cole attack because the question was to what extent were government officials complicit in the al Qaeda attack against the USS Cole.

Economically the Hunt Oil Company of Texas had a discovered modest amount of oil in the Ma’rib area of Yemen. That’s the northeast part of Yemen, and they had constructed an oil pipeline across Yemen to a point on the Red Sea above Hodeida. That was Yemen’s economic lifeline. Some 90% of Yemen’s hard currency was derived from the sale of that oil.

Otherwise, Yemen was the odd man out in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries had a great deal of money and very little population therefore very high per capita income. Yemen was the opposite. It had very little national income and a very large population and therefore it was a country that was among the poorest and least developed in the world.

Q: When you went out there, how stood relations with the United States? Yemen was not supportive in the first Gulf War. It was in opposition.

HULL: Indeed. In the ‘90s, Yemen had a seat on the Security Council and was one of the few countries that voted against the UN Security Council resolution authorizing Operation Desert Storm. As a direct consequence of that, [then Secretary of State] Jim Baker had largely terminated our military and our economic assistance programs in Yemen. Relations had gone into a deep freeze.

Of course, with the attack on the Cole and with the suspicion in the CIA, FBI and NCIS about possible official complicity, relations were difficult, to say the least. There was much speculation in the American media and in some circles in Washington that Yemen should be a future target in the War on Terror. After we had dealt with Afghanistan, Yemen was a prime candidate for future U.S. military operations.

Interagency Squabbles

I had been to Yemen the previous year in my capacity as acting Director for Counterterrorism, and I had on that occasion met President Saleh, Prime Minister Iryani, the Foreign Minister, the Interior Minister, and some of the military. I had also talked with Ambassador [Barbara] Bodine, at that time our Ambassador there. I had also been in touch with the FBI and NCIS ever since the Cole attack itself. So I had a very good sense of how the investigation had occurred and the substantive results of the investigation.

FBIIt was a mixed picture. The FBI had gone into Yemen and at that time the investigation was being led by John O’Neill, a legendary figure in counterterrorism. The FBI had gone into Aden with the expectation that they could operate as they had in East Africa, in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam where they had been given a blank check by the governments and really, pretty much a free hand. [Read Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s account of the Embassy Nairobi bombing]

It was a very different situation in Yemen. Of course, Arab and Islamic countries had a great sensitivity to American presence, to American dictates and in this case of course, the government had connections they were very sensitive. So they frankly had things to hide. The investigation really preceded by fits and starts. Our Ambassador, Barbara Bodine tried very, very hard to press it, but John O’Neill wanted an even more confrontational approach.

That sparked a conflict of two very strong personalities, and Ambassador Bodine eventually denied John O’Neill country clearance [permission from the embassy to U.S. government officials to enter the country on official business] to pursue the investigation, and the FBI had to send an alternate lead for the investigation. That had surfaced in The Washington Post. Secretary [Colin] Powell was not happy with State Department and the FBI squabbling surfacing in the media, and one of my objectives on arriving in Yemen was to get a team effort and a more productive investigation.

The investigation had moved from Aden to Sana’a. While in Aden, the FBI felt itself as much a target as investigators and the level of paranoia was very high indeed. They brought that attitude with them to Sana’a. They would not sleep in hotels. They slept on the compound in a makeshift dormitory. They would go outside the embassy compound only for investigation purposes and for as little time as possible. There was a great deal of friction between the Diplomatic Security elements who insisted on providing protection and the FBI, which wanted very much to protect itself by a much more overt show of force.

One of my early undertakings was to sit down with all involved and to hammer out arrangements so the investigation could be pursued. In that regard I had a couple of advantages. I had very good friends in the FBI from the interagency process, the Counterterrorism Security Group process, so I really came to Sana’a with a good reputation. We were able to come to an understanding, and they knew clearly that pursuing the investigation and getting results from the investigation was one of the highest priorities that I had as Ambassador.

We were greatly assisted by the post-9/11 atmosphere because there was a great deal of sympathy for the United States government. We received many expressions of sympathy and condolences from ordinary Yemenis as well as official Yemenis and so in that propitious environment we were able to press the investigation and to get Yemeni cooperation in a number of ways, including handing over of significant amounts of documents and other evidence that was even allowed to be removed to Washington for processing by the FBI laboratories.

So we’re in a situation where the investigation was showing very gratifying results and moods brightened and cooperation within the embassy and between the embassy and the Yemeni security organs was prospering.

Q: I talked with Mike Metrinko who was there before you got there. You had the State Department security people, you had the FBI and the Navy investigators. All these people had different views of the situation. They were running around, driving on the sidewalks and they were sort of hostile to each other and making a hell of a lot of enemies among just ordinary people. It was a bureaucratic mess, and they were armed.

HULL: Mike was talking about this situation in Aden. He had deployed to Aden and, as I said, paranoia was added to legitimate threat. Yes, the situation was teetering on the brink of being out of control, and there was a real mix of people overreacting. Great damage being done. There was a lot of talent and high motivation, but the trick was to bring it together in a team effort….

It was the Ambassador’s job to take all this talent and put it together in a team so that people would feel comfortable with each other and that we would show more results. That was our approach.

The investigation eventually lead to trials in Yemen and convictions of the key al Qaeda participants. In this regard, there’s much to be said because in between there were jail breaks and recaptures…but the bottom line was the Yemenis eventually, with a great deal of help from the FBI and NCIS, were able to convict and sentence the perpetrators.

Al Qaeda’s main effort was directed against the embassy. They had links to Eastern Africa but the most active plotting was to attack the embassy or failing that, other American targets. We knew this from intelligence that we were gathering through various means, intelligence that proved quite reliable, if piecemeal.

Initially, in 2001 and 2002 it was really a question of whether with the cooperation of the Yemenis, we would get al Qaeda or whether al Qaeda would get us.

“I went out on a limb and expressed my opinion that Yemen was a ‘partner’ and not a ‘target’”

The Yemeni government in the aftermath of 9/11 said the right things. Saleh had sent a private message to President Bush pledging support. Soon after I arrived in a national holiday speech, Saleh had reiterated publicly that support.

But the whole question was whether or not they could convert that rhetorical support into practical cooperation and show results. So we really needed to do so, and we also needed to resolve this issue of whether in the War on Terror Yemen was going to be a target of the United States or whether it was going to be a partner of the United States. There was a great deal of speculation in the Western media that it was going to be the former, which caused the Yemenis great nervousness.

I was asked about this early on at a town hall meeting held for American citizens in Yemen…. I went out on a limb and expressed my opinion that Yemen was a “partner” and not a “target” and that we would get much better results through that partnership than otherwise. This was reported, as I knew it would be, in the international media, and I never heard any kind of rebuke from Washington, so at least at that stage I was going to get enough slack to explore a counterterrorism partnership with the Yemeni government.

We had from Saleh, both a private and the public pledges of support, so as Ambassador my priority was to convert that into practical action. When I made my initial call on the President… I was given an early opportunity to raise specific issues….

President_Ali_Abdullah_SalehIn that discussion, I handed President Saleh a memorandum in which we detailed for him two individuals who were playing leading roles in al Qaeda in Yemen. One was Abu Ali, who was really the godfather of al Qaeda in Yemen, and the second was Abu Assem, who was a Saudi and who was the primary financier for al Qaeda operations in Yemen. I asked the President for assistance in either capturing or killing these specific individuals. We agreed that we would establish a special channel to pursue this objective, and we were therefore launched as quickly as possible.

On the intelligence front, of course, there was this defense vs. offense game going on. We knew al Qaeda wanted to attack the embassy or American targets and therefore we had to initially strengthen our defenses.

When I arrived, the embassy was shut down. The same authorized departure that made it impossible for my wife to accompany me to Yemen had caused most of the embassy operations to close and people were at home. This over a long period debilitated our operations and so an initial objective was to get the embassy more secure and get people back to work…. I gave priority to the security of the compound….

We got the embassy back to work, but the authorized departure had sent home the majority of people. We had no public diplomacy, we had no economic section. I think at the time we had one political officer. We were really limping along.

A Plan for Public Diplomacy between the U.S. and Yemen

First, we had to get some cooperation going because public diplomacy is rarely effective in the abstract. You really need the right policy and the right programs and then you can convey them through public diplomacy.

Al Qaeda was enjoying quasi sanctuaries in Ma’rib, Jowf and Shabwa. We needed to be able to get into those areas to function there and to gain the support of the tribes. President Saleh provided me an opening for this…. He made a plea with me to undertake economic assistance, development efforts in these deprived areas. This was exactly what I was looking for, a presidential invitation for us to do something in these difficult, remote areas.

I did research on the tribes… and it seemed to me that the problem was we had a vicious circle in places like Ma’rib. You had bad governance which led to an alienated population, which led to continuing violence, which led to discouraging any kind of investment, which meant unemployment, which meant more violence and fed into the government ignoring the area and back to bad governance. What it seemed to me was we needed to replace that vicious circle with a virtuous circle:  improving the governance of the area, attracting developmental investment, foreign investment, creating jobs, improving services, strengthening governance and then around and around.

I came up with a PowerPoint presentation…. I needed some way to get it reality-checked with the President, and I chose for that his political adviser, Abdul Karim Al-Iriani, who is perhaps the most brilliant man in Yemen, a former Prime Minister and a former Foreign Minister. He came from a long line of intellectuals and judges and was himself extremely well-educated. He had a Ph.D. from Yale, and was one of the few individuals who could deal with President Saleh without personal fear. So I took my approach to Abdul Karim, explained that this was my thinking generated by the President’s request and asked him to take a look at it and see if it was suitable.

“The documents had caused a political firestorm. I thought my days in Sana’a were numbered.”

Now about this time another significant event occurred… There was a possibility of President Saleh being invited to Washington.

L.Col_Members_AbdulKareemIn conjunction with the visit then, Al Iriani (at left) had proposed that we also take a look at some kind of memorandum of understanding on the issue of counterterrorism whereby each side would lay out what it could do for the other in the various areas of military cooperation, intelligence cooperation, and economic development, etc. It was not meant to be a legally binding agreement or a detailed enumeration, but rather to put down broad principles that could serve as a basis.

I agreed to take a crack at drafting such an agreement and after doing so sent it back to Washington for its opinion and also made a copy available to Al Iriani for him to take a look at.

The following Friday… I got a phone call while in the car that President Saleh wanted to see me urgently.  I… found an absolutely irate President Saleh, who proceeded to take me to task for the plan and for the “treaty” that I had proposed. It took me a little bit of time before I realized what had happened.

The documents that I given Al Iriani for his private reaction had been sent on to the Presidency and then the Presidency had sent them onto the Cabinet and they had caused a political firestorm. I had never seen the President quite this irate before and I honestly thought that my days in Sana’a were numbered and that I would be deemed persona non grata in short order.

President Saleh ranted for a considerable amount of time. When he finally calmed down, I very quietly went through the origin of both documents that the President had been generated by his request to me, that the proposed memorandum of understanding had been Al Iriani’s idea. If either or both were objectionable, we could toss them in the wastebasket. I had no need for them, but I was trying to meet a Yemeni request in both regards. That gave Saleh pause and put it in a different light. He still said nothing good about Plan Ma’rib, but he did say he wanted to think more about the memo of understanding.

Clearly, the problem with Plan Ma’rib was the starting point for the vicious circle was that it was “bad governance”– a point that could be argued easily by the fact that the governor of the province had been exiled from Sana’a for keeping private prisons and his corruption, and he was well-known for being a drunk. In any case, that was put aside and instead after some consideration by the President, a green light was given to pursuing the memorandum of understanding.

President Saleh goes to Washington

[President Saleh] made the trip — it was late November 2001 so two months after 9/11. I had preceded him back to Washington and had hoped to find Washington focused on Plan Ma’rib and the proposed memorandum of understanding. Indeed, there were interagency meetings to discuss the memorandum of understanding, but I soon realized that neither of these proposals stood any chance of serious consideration.

yemen explosionThere was still a very strong camp in Washington that considered Yemen a target rather than a partner in the War on Terror and who were interested in browbeating Yemenis or taking forceful measures…. I was left in the delicate position of the President coming with no serious Washington engagement on the memorandum.

Saleh quite unintentionally provided me my exit strategy from this embarrassment because on his arrival in Washington he called me over to the hotel where he was staying and said that he had changed his mind on the memorandum and that he was not prepared to sign it, but the Foreign Minister could sign it. In response to which I said that was not the original understanding, that we should put the memorandum of understanding aside and focus the visit on the meetings and more general understandings. So quite quickly of course, the whole issue of signing anything went away.

Saleh went around Washington and met with all of the significant people in the new administration. The meetings were hit and miss. Saleh at times was good, but at other times really insisted on talking about issues to which Yemen was marginal. For example, with Secretary Powell he used the majority of the meeting talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and we risked having the visit confirm in Washington’s mind the image of Saleh as an unreliable partner in the obsession which was Washington’s at that time — quite naturally the War on Terror.

As we approached the Oval Office meeting, I met with my colleagues in the Yemeni government… and very candidly assessed that unless we focused President Saleh on terrorism in the Oval Office and made sure that he and President Bush had a meeting of minds, the visit would not be productive.

“Who is this guy and what do I want from him?”

Saleh and BushI was also given the opportunity to pre-brief President Bush in the Oval Office. We had about 15 minutes before the meeting…. President Bush, when we walked into the Oval Office, got up from his desk, came toward us and said, “Who is this guy and what do I want from him?”

Secretary Powell turned to his Ambassador, and I had a chance, in about 45 seconds, to lay out what was involved in Yemen and what was involved with President Saleh and encourage the President to be very direct, very clear about what we wanted, to mention specifically al Qaeda’s leadership, Abu Ali and Abu Assem, and to reach a partnership with President Saleh that together we would eliminate al Qaeda’s basic operation in Yemen. That was an objective the President understood easily and could identify with….

President Bush would be well advised to pre-empt any discussion because in President Saleh’s past meeting with President Clinton, Saleh had begun and half an hour had really been wasted with Saleh giving a long, meandering lecture to President Clinton about Middle East politics. So armed with that President Bush did seize the initiative and as soon as President Saleh was seated, laid out his interest in the War on Terror, that he wanted a partnership with Yemen, but that we needed to go after al Qaeda and that al Qaeda had faces and we needed to go after the individuals.

President Saleh responded vigorously, also very directly, said we are in pursuit of these individuals, we will have them soon, “we will butcher them,” which was language that the Oval Office was not adverse to hearing at that stage in the War on Terror. So in the short space of some 35 or 40 minutes the two Presidents had reached a meeting of minds, and we left the Oval Office. As Ambassador, I thought I had a very good basis for pursuing my front on the War on Terror.

It was very much the case, particularly in DOD and some people in the NSC (National Security Council) — there was almost a preference that Yemenis would be obstinate and give us an excuse to take forceful action. Langley, however, was much more sophisticated and all along preferred cooperation, as did the FBI, so as Ambassador it was really my job to manage these forces and to get enough of a result coming out of a cooperative track so that those back in Washington who wanted forceful action didn’t have reason to pursue that….

Yemen goes after al Qaeda operatives – to no avail

abu aliYou’ll recall that President Saleh told President Bush that he was pursuing and surrounding our two primary targets, Abu Ali (at right) and Abu Assem. In mid-December Saleh called over and asked to see the Chief of Station [top CIA representative at post]. My response was that if anyone was going to see the President, it would be the Ambassador, and I felt very strongly about this because I have seen in other places in the Middle East where the Chief of Station had established a relationship directly with the head of state and where the Ambassador and the State Department were excluded and I was not going to have that happen in Yemen.

So I said there could be a meeting but it would be with the Ambassador. So he relented, we had a meeting in the Ministry of Defense, unusually because they normally had it in the Presidential palace. Saleh told us that there was an operation being mounted to act against our two identified targets. Abu Ali was in a good location just outside Marib. Abu Asim was identified in Jowf to the north. He invited us to follow the operations, and we wished him good luck and we proceeded to a very intense couple of days as the Yemenis undertook this.

Unfortunately, the Yemeni had very little surgical counterterrorism capability so these operations turned into very clumsy, very noisy military operations involving armored vehicles, mass movements of troops. It wasn’t very surprising that when they showed up at Abu Ali’s compound on December 18 he was long gone. They got permission from the tribes to check it and verified that he was no longer there and that incident ended disappointingly, but not disastrously.

The operation in Jowf, however, was not so fortunate. There the Yemeni military surrounded the compound and while they were negotiating with the tribesmen to check it for Abu Assem (below), a Yemeni Air Force jet overflew the compound and broke the sound barrier, which the tribesmen took to be the beginning of an assault and therefore they opened up on the Yemeni military and killed 18. Of course, the target was long gone so the operation had great casualties and was for naught.

abu assem 1We were depressed when we got this news back in the embassy and felt very bad indeed for the Yemenis who had suffered losses and for the opportunities that had been missed because this meant that in the future these targets would be very hard to find. It was somewhat of a surprise to me then to learn that the reaction in Washington was one of encouragement.

We had notified Washington that this was in train. They were following it very closely as well and the fact that the Yemenis had spilled their own blood in pursuit of these terrorist targets was a stronger argument for a potential partnership than any words that we could have had and very interestingly, the reaction in Washington for the first time was that we had serious prospects for working with government of Yemen against al Qaeda….

Increased counterterrorism cooperation — with drawbacks and successes

We arrived in Aden, met with President Saleh. President Saleh again was at the top of his game, reiterated what he had said in the Oval Office, said that the December 18 setback did not deter him. He was as determined as ever to eliminate al Qaeda and whatever the U.S. decided he was going to pursue that objective….

Washington made the policy decisions to engage with the Yemenis in a serious fashion and that involved both a military track and an intelligence track. We started to get a bit of economic assistance that we could use in the remote tribal areas. We began to build the embassy back up, including the public diplomacy capability.

The central part of this was a training effort of the Yemeni Special Forces which was their designated counterterrorism unit and this was commanded by Ahmed Saleh, President Saleh’s son. They had been trained by the Jordanians so we weren’t starting from scratch, and we had U.S. military trainers, both Marines and Army Special Forces coming into Sana’a and working with the Yemeni Special Operations Forces.

That turned out to be an extremely frustrating undertaking. The Yemenis were still extraordinarily suspicious of us and when our people came in and the equipment came in they insisted on vigorous inspections including of highly sensitive equipment and they were very high tensions between the American trainers and the Yemeni trainees because they suspected each had ulterior motives.

The situation became more even more complicated when the Yemenis started to impede diplomatic pouches. We defined virtually anything as such, anything we wanted to slap a sticker on saying “diplomatic pouch,” including very large pallets of equipment, electronic or otherwise. The Yemenis defined diplomatic pouches as the being orange bags in which things were put in. So we had an extremely frustrating situation where the Yemeni would allow in weapons intended for their forces, but equipment that we needed for our purposes would be obstructed. We also had a problem in that the Yemeni Special Forces — as it became clearer and clearer — that in effect, we were training a praetorian guard for the President rather than an active counterterrorism unit.

yemen emblemFortunately, we had at the same time been working with the Central Security Forces under Colonel Yahia al Saleh, the President’s nephew, and Minister of Interior Alimi. There we found a totally different picture. We found a great deal of trust, we found commitment on the Yemeni side and we found a willingness to engage in the terrorist fight. So although our efforts with the Special Forces didn’t pan out, our efforts with the Central Security Forces had very good results.

We were developing other options at the time over these months because Washington was pressing to show results. The Afghan situation had gone well over a matter of months. We were still in the planning stage for Iraq. Washington wanted some other victory to show on the War on Terror, and Yemen was a candidate for that. And that’s when we entered into discussions with President Saleh about deploying the armed Predator as another option in going against the al Qaeda target, which led, in November 2002, to a successful strike against Abu Ali who was in a car heading back to Marib, and he was eliminated.

Q: Was there ever an option for al Qaeda to just leave Yemen?

HULL: Al Qaeda had invested a great deal in Yemen and was not about to give up that investment. They had in August of 2002 a plot well advanced to attack the U.S. Embassy with rockets, and we were fortunate in that the rocket they were preparing for the attack misfired killing one of the al Qaeda operatives and severely injuring a second one. It was that mistake by al Qaeda in August that short-circuited their plan. Then working with the Yemenis at the crime scene we made the connection to al Qaeda and regained the initiative so that the following November we were able to eliminate the head of Al Qaeda by the strike in Marib.

One of their decisions was to mount an assassination attempt against the American Ambassador — me”

After al Qaeda lost its leadership, there began a long continuing campaign to take out other key al Qaeda operatives. Of course, while we were doing this in Yemen, it was being done more generally in the Gulf, e.g. in the UAE [United Arab Emirates]. Bin Laden lost his key operative for the peninsular region so between what we were doing outside of Yemen and what we were doing inside of Yemen, al Qaeda was being steadily degraded.

But they were not totally defanged. One of their decisions in the aftermath of the successful operation against Abu Ali was to mount an assassination attempt against the American Ambassador — me. They had a cell of very experienced operatives dedicated to that mission for the better part of 2002.

APTOPIX Mideast YemenWe had a great deal of security. Our most important tactic was to be unpredictable, to have no set pattern, to alter our routes, our times. I remember I had a Monday evening bridge game. The Regional Security Officer came to me and complained that it was entirely too predictable and so on occasion I would spend Monday afternoon at the defense attaché’s apartment so I could make my bridge game without making the transit predictably on Monday evening.

The plot against me involved an attack against my motorcade and the plan was to stake out two intersections to the right and to the left of the embassy (at left) because when we came out of the embassy we had to either turn right or left and about a block down the road in either direction there were intersections which the attackers planned to stage at and then either using a rocket or a vehicle bomb to attack my vehicle.

They got to the stage of the surveillance and planning. Before they were able to execute the attack, the Central Security Forces, the Minister of Interior, got information as to the location of the key plotter, who was then set to flight. They were never able to execute the attack.

“The partnership was established on firm ground”

We were very actively pursuing the issue of democracy and human rights, which was another major effort of the administration. There was an election, parliamentary elections scheduled for Yemen for 2003, coincidental with the invasion of Iraq by the Americans. Saleh considered postponing those elections but in the end went ahead with them.

They were extremely well organized…. We were providing financial assistance to that effort. We were working with all the parties in Yemen, the ruling party, the Socialist party and the Islamic party…. and the elections were a significant success and a step forward for Yemen. Largely as a result of them, Freedom House that year moved Yemen from the category of “not free” to “partly free.”

The Yemenis subsequently sponsored a large conference in Sana’a co-sponsored by the Europeans to which they invited both official and nonofficial representatives from across the Arab world and it was a remarkable conference that produced a Declaration of Sana’a putting these representatives formally on record in promoting democracy in the Middle East.

I had not taken it very seriously. I thought the words had little significance without practical implementation. Washington, at least the NSC, saw it in a different light…. For the first time in my tenure as Ambassador, the first subject raised by the NSC was not terrorism, but rather it was democracy. They were aware of Yemen’s elections, they were aware of the Declaration of Sana’a and were very interested in using that declaration to further promotion of democracy in the Middle East. Therefore, it was not a total surprise when I received a phone call several months later from the National Security Council wanting to invite President Saleh to the Sea Island Summit of the G-8 which President Bush was hosting and which would have as its theme promoting democracy.

For Saleh that meeting, those meetings in Washington were really somewhat of a victory lap because by that time al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen had been virtually shut down. Our counterterrorism cooperation was broadly speaking well established, and there was virtually no one left in Washington who any longer debated the question of whether Yemen should be a target or a partner. The partnership was really established on firm ground.

Permalink

Return to Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Yemen and the War on Terror

by Admin CoolBen time to read: 25 min
0