TIME Yemen

Yemen’s Prime Minister Resigns Amid Violence

Mohammed Salem Basindwa
Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa attends the third ministerial meeting of the friends of Yemen in the capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 23, 2012. Hassan Ammar—AP

Mohammed Salem Bassindwa's resignation came as Shiite rebels took control of a key military base and Iman University in the capital city of Sanaa

SANAA, Yemen — Yemen’s prime minister resigned Sunday, the state news agency reported, following days of violence that left more than 140 dead and prompted thousands to flee their homes.

The official SABA news agency gave no details on the move by Mohammed Salem Bassindwa, and it was not immediately clear if his resignation had been accepted by the president.

Bassindwa took office shortly after former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down in 2012. He has been in office since February 2012 and has since been the target of sharp criticism for his inability to deal with the country’s pressing problems.

The resignation came as Shiite rebels, known as Hawthis, took control of a key military base and Iman University on Sunday afternoon in the capital Sanaa, according to military officials. The university was seen as a bastion of Sunni hard-liners that is seen as a recruitment hub for militants.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to brief reporters. There were no official casualty figures from Sunday’s violence.

Hawthi rebels on Saturday captured the state television building. The Hawthis have in recent months routed their Islamist foes in a series of battles in areas north of Sanaa, and have in recent days consolidated and expanded their grip on areas just to the north of the capital.

Their foes have traditionally been Islamist militias allied with the government or the fundamentalist Islah party. The Hawthis have been pressing for a change of government and what they see as a fair share of power.

The Defense Ministry and the General Staff issued a joint statement calling on military units in Sanaa and nearby areas to remain at their posts, be on high alert and safeguard their weapons and equipment.

On Saturday, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, had signaled that an agreement was reached to halt the violence, and that preparations are underway to sign the accord.

TIME

Fierce Fighting in Yemeni Capital Kills 120

(SANAA, Yemen) — Shiite rebels and Sunni militiamen battled in the streets of the Yemeni capital for a second day Friday in fighting that has killed at least 120 people, driven thousands from their homes and virtually shut down the country’s main airport. The battles are raising fears of greater sectarian conflict, unseen for decades in Yemen.

Yemen has been chronically unstable for years. But its main fight has been by the government against al-Qaida militants who operate in the south and the mountainous center of the country.

In the past few months, however, the Shiite rebels known as the Hawthis have become one of the country’s most powerful players. They surged from their stronghold in the north, taking a string of cities and have fought to the capital, Sanaa.

Their main opponent has been Sunni Muslim hardliners — militias and army units allied with the Islah party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen, or tribal fighters sympathetic with the Brotherhood or al-Qaida. The government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, an ally of the United States, appears largely caught in the middle between the two forces.

After taking control of the Sanaa suburb of Shamlan this week, Hawthi fighters on Thursday launched an assault on the Sunni hardliners’ stronghold, Iman University, which is seen as a breeding ground for militants. On Friday, the Hawthis attacked the nearby headquarters of state TV, trying to storm the building, which the night before they hit with mortars, witnesses said.

“Every minute, there is something rattling or bombing, either rocket-propelled grenades or machine guns. The wall hangings fell down. The house was shaking with every explosion,” Ammar Ahmed, who lives near the university, said of fighting overnight.

Army units joined Islah gunmen in fighting the rebels. Bloodied bodies lay in the streets next the charred vehicles in front of the university, said another resident of the area, Ahmed Ibrahim. Hawthis tried to take a hill overlooking the university but were driven back by artillery fire, witnesses said.

Fighting also spread to the Massbah district, where Hawthis targeted house of Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an ally of the Islamists who led the military against the Hawthi rebellion in the north from 2004 to 2010.

At least 120 people, predominantly fighters from either side, were killed over the past 24 hours, according to medical officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Troops at a key intersection prevented the Hawthis from approaching the airport, north of the capital. However, the civil aviation agency said most foreign airlines had suspended flights to Sanaa for 24 hours because of the security situation.

The fighting is the latest chapter of Yemen’s turmoil. The impoverished Arabian nation has long faced the threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is considered one of the most dangerous branches of the terror network. The U.S. has been working with the government for years to fight the militants, who at one point in 2011 took over several southern cities until they were driven out the following year.

Yemen has also faced a persistent separatist movement in the south, which was an independent nation until 1990. Across its territory, the country also has deep tribal divisions.

It went through political upheaval starting in 2011, when Arab Spring-style protests erupted against longtime autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After months of clinging to power, Saleh was eventually forced out, and Hadi was brought in to replace him. Still, Saleh’s loyalists permeate the government and military and are accused of trying to undermine Hadi.

Hadi has been trying to lead widescale reforms to reshape and decentralize Yemen’s political system by creating six regions that would be given greater powers to satisfy the various divisions in the country.

Throughout, the sectarian Sunni-Shiite divide has rarely been in the forefront of the country’s tensions — in sharp contrast to Syria and Iraq, which have been torn apart by hatreds between the two communities, stoked by by the regional rivalry between Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Shiite power Iran.

The version of Shiism prevalent in Yemen, Zaydi Shiism, is considered close to Sunni Islam, and the communities have long been intertwined in the country’s power structure with little distinction. Zaydis are believed to make up just under half the population of 35 million people.

However, hardliners on both sides could change that. The Hawthis first emerged in the 1990s as a movement pushing to revive the Zaydi identity. Its opponents believe it wants to reestablish a Zaydi religious state in the north that existed until the 1960s, under the rule of an “imam,” or spiritual leader. They also accuse it of becoming an ally of Iran to further its influence in the country, a claim the movement denies.

On the other side, many Sunni hardliners who are prevalent in parts of the military, in armed militias as well as al-Qaida consider Shiites as heretics.

From 2004, the Hawthis fought a series of civil wars, but the fighting was largely contained to the area around its main stronghold in the north, Saada. Often in the fighting, the Yemeni military called up Sunni militias to help it against the Shiites. The last war ended with a 2010 ceasefire, but during the political turmoil of the anti-Saleh uprising, the Hawthis took total control of the Saada region.

In past weeks, they have surged south, taking a string of towns and cities. The Islamist hardliners they were fighting are also rivals of the president, Hadi, so he largely turned a blind eye or implicitly backed the Hawthis’ advances.

But then the Hawthis launched a protest campaign in Sanaa, setting up sit-in encampments in several parts of the capital. They tapped into discontent with Hadi’s government, which earlier this year lifted fuel subsidies, sparking a leap in gas prices, and has been widely criticized as too slow in bringing political and economic change.

The movement denies it wants to take power — and denies any link to Iran. Instead, it depicts itself as a political force seeking reform. Its opponents, however, are skeptical.

Saudi Arabia, which wields powerful influence in Yemen, also initially appeared to be happy to see the Hawthis battle the Muslim Brotherhood, which the kingdom views as a bitter enemy. But now Saudis have raised fears over the rebels’ advance on Sanaa.

In a recent editorial in the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Saudi writer Tareq al-Homayed called the Hawthis a tool of Iran to spread its influence. He warned that the Hawthis could capture Sanaa at any time and said Saudi Arabia must have a plan to ensure that “all of Yemen does not fall into the hands of the Hawthis and Iran.”

___

Michael reported from Cairo.

TIME Yemen

State Department: U.S. Officers Killed 2 Yemeni Civilians in Shootout

YEMEN-UNREST
Yemenis gather at the site of a bomb explosion that targeted an army troop vehicle on its way to man a checkpoint on a street leading to two western embassies on May 9, 2014 in the capital Sanaa. Mohammed Huwais—AFP/Getty Images

Two U.S. officers shot and killed two Yemeni civilians during a botched kidnapping attempt, the State Department said Saturday. The incident raises tensions at a time when the Yemeni government is unpopular with the local population for allowing American drone strikes

Two American embassy officers shot and killed two Yemeni civilians trying to kidnap the Americans in Yemen’s capital last month, a State Department spokesperson confirmed to the New York Times Saturday. The pair of Americans involved in the incident have since left the country, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told the Times.

The Times first reported the incident Friday, citing unnamed American officials. The original Times report claimed the attempted kidnapping and subsequent shootout involved a U.S. Special Operations commando and a Central Intelligence Agency officer attached to the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and took place at a Sanaa barber shop.

The incident comes at a tumultuous time for Yemen’s embattled government. Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has lost popularity among many Yemenis by allowing American drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda members. The strikes, which sometimes result in civilian deaths, are fiercely unpopular among Yemenis, and militants have stepped up their attacks against the government in response to the drone strikes.

Yemeni officials have remained largely silent about the shootings, though a spokesman for Yemen’s Interior Ministry said Saturday that two non-Yemeni foreigners targeted for abduction fired on their Yemini would-be abductors. Yemeni media did not report at the time that the shooters were American.

The episode could further damage the Yemeni government’s domestic reputation if it is perceived that it covered up the identities of the American officers.

[NYT]

TIME Yemen

Drone War Doesn’t Stop Al-Qaeda’s ‘Obsession’ With Striking U.S.

People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda
People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda April 19, 2014. Stringer—Reuters

Experts say Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains focused on striking the United States, and targeted attacks by American drones and Yemeni commandos have so far failed to weaken the dangerous group

Al-Qaeda is so many places these days that it’s easy to overlook the one spot on the globe arguably most dangerous to the West. But the stony hills of southern Yemen stood out vividly in the video that surfaced on the Internet last week, as did the scores of jihadi fighters who gathered to chant and pray in a brazen open-air meeting. The leader of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, a former secretary to Osama bin Laden named Nasser al-Wuhayshi, sat on a rock and held forth on the importance of striking America—“the bearer of the cross.” Pick-ups carried black Qaeda flags fringed in gold, like the campaign standards of a regular army, all in the clear light of day.

“Many wondered, myself included, where were the drones during such a public display of al-Qaeda’s power?” Charles Schmitz, a Yemen specialist at Towson University in Maryland, tells TIME.

“Last weekend was the answer.”

The U.S. and Yemen launched joint attacks late Saturday that continued through Monday. The attacks served as a reminder of the persistent terror threat in Yemen, the ancestral homeland of bin Laden and a stronghold of al-Qaeda’s “old school”—militants focused not on sectarian warfare within Islam, but on “the far enemy,” meaning the West and, especially, the United States. Waves of American aircraft—identified by Yemeni officials as drones—targeted militants in vehicles, while Yemeni commandos poured from Russian-made helicopters steered by U.S. Special Operations pilots. The government of Yemen said 55 militants were killed, a sizable number that analysts said may also be significant.

“It’s significant if they’re senior people,” says Magnus Ranstorp, who directs research at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College.

DNA tests were underway to nail down identities, Yemeni president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told reporters on Wednesday. Initial reports indicated that the dead may include Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bomb-maker U.S. officials dubbed “the world’s most dangerous terrorist” because of his talent for getting explosives past security. Among al-Asiri’s innovations were the “underwear bomb” that a militant failed to detonate on an airliner over Detroit in 2009, as well as explosives hidden in computer printers shipped to the U.S. Earlier in 2009, al-Asiri dispatched his own brother on a suicide mission aimed at a Saudi interior ministry official.

“They are a serious terrorism threat, given the technical capability, the level of innovation in delivery,” Ranstorp says. “They almost have an autistic obsession with striking civilization.”

That alone distinguishes AQAP from other al-Qaeda branches, many of which are more interested in winning territory or waging sectarian war on Muslims they regard as apostates, often followers of the faith’s Shiite tradition. Qaeda fighters took over much of Yemen’s south in the security vacuum that followed the Arab Spring uprisings, only to be pushed into the mountains by government forces in 2012.

But the terror group remained focused on striking overseas. “AQAP appears to be the only one that’s still vectored toward, ‘We gotta hit the US, we gotta go after the Far Enemy,’ and that was al-Qaeda’s original banner,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and officer at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Watts says there are indications that young members of AQAP, many of them Saudis who fought in Iraq, appear to be arguing for greater involvement in sectarian conflicts, and building a state based on Sharia law. And indeed, in the video that surfaced earlier this month, several militants speak of concentrating their attention within Yemen, where a Shiite uprising supported by Iran festers in the north.

But Watts says “the old guard” remains in control. “That’s the track record, and they’re the group that’s committed to external operations against the U.S. and the West,” he says.

That also explains the cascading U.S.-Yemeni joint strikes last weekend, which, based on the relative complexity involved, Watts says appeared to have been in the works for some time. U.S. Special Forces, both in Yemen and across the Bab-al-Mandab (Gate of Tears) in Djibouti, have worked closely with Yemen’s military and intelligence since 2001, and more openly since Hadi became president. But Schmitz, the Towson professor, says Yemenis harbor the same concerns about their sovereignty and civilian casualties that plagued the American drone campaign in Pakistan. And in Yemen, al-Qaeda has consistently bounced back, in recent months overrunning military installations, attacking the Ministry of Defense, and breaking 19 militants out of the capital’s central prison.

“These operations seem to show that al-Qaeda was alive and well,” Schmitz says. “In spite of five years of drone warfare and three years of direct confrontation with the Yemeni military in which many people have been killed, al-Qaeda shows great resourcefulness and resilience.”

TIME Terrorism

Air Strikes Kill Dozens of al-Qaeda Members in Yemen

People inspect the wreckage of a car hit by an air strike in the central Yemeni province of al-Bayda on April 19, 2014. Reuters

A "massive and unprecedented" series of joint U.S.-Yemeni airstrikes was launched against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula over the weekend, reportedly killing some 55 militants but also at least three civilians in the country’s southern and central regions

Updated 1:12 p.m. ET

Air strikes killed about 55 suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen on Sunday, officials said, in what was called an “unprecedented” series of strikes.

According to the nation’s High Security Committee, the operation focused on “terrorist elements [who] were planning to target vital civilian and military installations.” An unnamed high-level Yemeni official told CNN that the “massive and unprecedented” strike involved commandos who are now “going after high-level AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] targets.” He said the operation was launched in collaboration with the U.S., though wouldn’t confirm the use of drones in the attack. The U.S. is known to have conducted drone strikes in Yemen.

Predawn strikes targeted a mountain ridge in the southern province of Abyan, according to the official, while Yemen’s state news agency SABA said three strikes hit an al-Qaeda training camp around 450 km south of the capital Sana‘a.

AQAP is one of the terrorist group’s most lethal wings.

TIME National Security

Judge Says a Radical Cleric’s 9/11 Comments Can Be Used as Evidence

Muslim cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa prays in a street outside his Mosque in north London, on March 28, 2003.
Muslim cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa prays in a street outside his Mosque in north London, on March 28, 2003. Alastair Grant—AP

A judge has ruled that jurors at the trial of Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, a fundamentalist and former imam who's known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, will be allowed to hear comments he made to praise the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks

Jurors at the trial of radical Islamic cleric Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, who is also known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, will be privy to comments the suspect made praising the 9/11 terrorists attacks, a judge ruled this week.

Mustafa is accused of trying to establish al Qaeda training camps in Oregon in the late 1990s and of aiding extremists who kidnapped a group of foreigners, including two American tourists, in Yemen in 1998.

According to an undated interview with a British television station, Mustafa stated: “Everybody was happy when the planes hit the World Trade Center.” And according to U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest, who is presiding over the case, these comments can be presented as evidence in court.

“Expressing clear and unequivocal support for terrorism is no doubt prejudicial. However, the defendant is charged with just those sorts of crimes,” Judge Katherine B. Forrest said in a written decision earlier this week.

Jury selection for the case concludes on Monday, while opening statements for the trial are set to commence on Thursday morning.

[AP]

TIME Law

Send in the Drones: Judge Tosses Case Against Obama Officials Over Deadly Strikes

Predator Drone
Maintenence personel check a Predator drone on March 7, 2013 in Sierra Vista, Arizona. John Moore—Getty Images

A federal judge said that U.S. officials can't be "held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war." The drone attacks in question killed U.S. citizens in Yemen, including an al-Qaeda cleric

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Friday against Obama administration officials that was brought by family members of U.S. citizens, including an al-Qaeda cleric, killed in drone attacks in Yemen.

District Judge Rosemary Collyer raised questions over the killings without due process during oral arguments last July, but ultimately ruled that the plaintiffs could not bring a case against individual officials.

The “defendants must be must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution when they intentionally target a U.S. citizen abroad at the direction of the President and with the concurrence of Congress,” she wrote. “They cannot be held personally responsible in monetary damages for conducting war.”

A drone strike in Sept. 2011 killed U.S.-born al-Qaida head Anwar al-Awlaki and propagandist Samir Khan, and another one killed al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son a month later.

The lawsuit was filed against then-Defense Scretary Leon Panetta, then CIA-director David Petraeus and two Special Operations commanders by the father of the elder al-Awlaki and the mother of Khan.

[AP]

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