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Walid Al-Saqaf: Yemen govt and US use fight against al-Qaeda to target opposition movement in South

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PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and we’re discussing the situation in Yemen with Walid al-Saqaf. He’s the former editor of Yemen Times newspaper. He’s now based in Sweden, doing a Ph.D., studying Internet censorship. Thanks for joining us, Walid.

WALID AL-SAQAF: Thank you.

JAY: Just to recap something from the first segment by way of a question, to what extent does [is] the current crisis in Yemen the product of a history, which was, given Yemen’s importance strategically, both United States, Saudi Arabia, perhaps other Western forces, the British, were very, very intent on making sure that southern Yemen was not part of the Soviet sphere, and once the Soviet Union fell, they wanted to make sure any remnants of that kind of political force was, you could say, weakened or demolished. A unified Yemen comes into being, essentially as an ally of the West, of Saudi Arabia, and once that’s achieved, nobody really gives a damn what happens to Yemen in terms of the conditions of the people. So is that a fair reading of it?

AL-SAQAF: I’d say it is. I mean, and it’s an unfortunate reality. And people in Yemen do feel it every day. If you look at the statistics and numbers by the World Bank, by the UN, Yemen has always been falling… one of the least developed in the region, —even to the level of gender equality: it’s not only the least in the Arab world; it’s the least in the whole world. And all of those accumulate over time and make people feel abandoned and neglected. Whenever something like the London conference comes up, these things aren’t mentioned much. Most of the talk would be about military aid, about supporting the regime’s efforts to, I don’t know, do economic reforms. But the real struggles of the people are very little attended to.

JAY: So what is al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, how did it begin, what size is it, and why is it there?

AL-SAQAF: Well, there are two stories given right now. I mean, the government of Yemen was trying to undermine the claim that it is real international threat. What is being claimed is that there are a bunch of al-Qaeda sympathizers, or, let’s say, members, perhaps, that had fled the jails in Yemen, and that had come from Guantanamo, and who had been trained in Afghanistan. Some were thought to have already abandoned their history in terms of fighting in real armed conflicts and resumed their daily lives as normal, regular citizens, but the reality is that many of those have been given haven in Yemen, because they felt that Yemen is a place where there is very low degree of law. I mean, law enforcement is very, very weak in Yemen. And add to that there are tribal loyalties, there are terrains that are very difficult to maneuver in for government authorities, and the government itself is weak in terms of economy, and it can’t pay for administrative districts or employees to follow up with all the services and regions.

JAY: To what extent is al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and that motion, movement, is that an extension of what’s been going on in—now based in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, coming and fishing in troubled waters in Yemen? Or to what extent is it an indigenous phenomena of—because of the lack of rights and poverty, and this is one form of expression of resistance to that?

AL-SAQAF: The first point you raised is what is being mentioned in most of the media. The other alternative view is that this al-Qaeda aspect of it is not merely a matter of armed groups coming over and being hosted in Yemen and trying to plan for further attacks; it’s more about that the situation in Yemen and the people’s level of poverty and the aspects of hopelessness in the country has driven people to join any group that would allow them to make ends meet. And at the same time, Yemen has traditionally been a very solid Islamic country, where conservative values are the norm. Many Islamic scholars come from Yemen and keep a very strong connection to the regime and to the society as a whole. So the country in itself perhaps one of those that are very closely sympathizing with any radical movement that is Islamic.

JAY: Now, when Yemen was formed, at the time of unification it was modeled after a modern republic, one of, I think, only ten or so republics in the Middle East. So there’s a lot of hope, as you were saying in the first segment of the interview, that Yemen would become kind of a model for a new democracy. What is the state now of democratic rights? I know the newspaper that you were editor of, Yemen Times, your father founded that, and you were saying he was killed in a, you said, mysterious car accident. The paper’s now run by your sister. What is the situation now in terms of free speech and the right to organize there?

AL-SAQAF: Just one look at the Committee to Protect Journalists Web site and searching for the keyword “Yemen” would show how disastrous the situation is. It’s been going on for many, many years now in last decade, so the situation is not new. But the issue is that whenever there is something to do with al-Qaeda or security, all those problems are set aside, and then the issue of security and armed cooperation with the regime are put into priority. And that’s mistaken. I mean, we need to look into the deeply rooted problems of Yemen, and part of it is lack of democracy and lack of freedom. I remembered Obama’s statements when he used to mention the need to reform countries like Pakistan and others, to make people’s voices heard and bring equality and justice, and those very fancy statements that we used to hear. But now on the ground we see something else happening. Those journalists are still in prison. There are many missing. Some have disappeared without any trial. Currently there are intimidations taking place, Web sites being banned, including my own Web site,, who got banned. So there are many problems happening, and part of the real solution is to target human rights elements of the country, trying to see where social injustices happen, trying to track down, see if the government has applied the economic and political reforms that it had promised for so long.

JAY: So instead of that, what’s happening: US policy is to prop up President Ali Saleh with money, and apparently even possibly with cruise missiles (there’s been reports that American cruise missiles helped Yemeni forces attack some of what were called al-Qaeda forces). So if this policy is the policy and continues, what do you think we’re going to see over the next year or two?

AL-SAQAF: A failed state. If the situation continues and status quo remains and president remains, the “ally”, in quotes, of the West that is going to serve the interests of the US and others in terms of punishing al-Qaeda and tracking down terrorists, while not becoming aggressive in reforms, then the country sooner or later will collapse, and then we’ll all have to blame the reasons behind it. And that is mainly because whenever the regime is starting to feel the pressure from the people and starting to find that the opposition is gaining voices and becoming really powerful and strong and supported measures for change, it brings up something like al-Qaeda and then gets the support from the West, and reflects this, unfortunately, in the governmental media, which often says the US is supporting the regime, the US is supporting unity, which is indirectly a reference to the regime.

JAY: Is al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula? Are they more based in the North or the South?

AL-SAQAF: I’d say they are distributed, but mostly in the South. The only reason for that, I’d say, is geographical, because the terrain there is easier for them to use and it’s less dense in terms of population. But other than that, they have sympathizers all over.

JAY: And the leadership of the Southern secessionist movement, what’s their relationship with al-Qaeda?

AL-SAQAF: They have been in total odds with it. I mean, you know, any socialist regime would be at odds with al-Qaeda. If we don’t say al-Qaeda itself but radical elements that are now part of al-Qaeda, in 1994 they had been fighting along with the regime that’s now led by Ali Saleh against the socialists and the Southerners.

JAY: And to what extent is the military support the Yemenis’ government’s getting in the name of fighting al-Qaeda being used to actually fight the secessionists, the Southerners?

AL-SAQAF: There’s no accountability. I mean, the problem in Yemen is lack of transparency. We don’t know where the money goes, where it comes from come, and we can’t hold the president accountable, remarkably, because he is immune of what we call the anticorruption committee that has been established. So we don’t know where the money flows. And it could be, I mean, that the money that the president will receive be used against the opposition and against crushing certain elements. And a very clear example is the killing of one leader, so-called al-Qaeda leader, who later turned to be a regular scholar. He’s a religious scholar that had not been in harmony with the regime for a while, and they claimed that he was al-Qaeda element. It made a mockery of the government later on when they discovered that he only joined al-Qaeda after his death.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Walid.

AL-SAQAF: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.

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Walid Al-Saqaf is a media researcher specializing in Internet censorship. He is a freelance journalist and the former editor of the Yemen Times. He has written for the Gulf News and the Wall Street Journal and is the founder of Currently, Walid Al-Saqaf is pursuing his PhD at the Department of Media and Communication at Orebro University, Sweden.