US diplomats in Yemen, have been travelling through the country in recent weeks conferring with tribal leaders, particularly in areas allegedly serving as safe-havens for al-Qaeda activists, and inspecting religious schools suspected of receiving funding from Bin Ladin. These outrageously undiplomatic activities come after president Ali Saleh let loose his troops on tribes and areas accused of hosting ‘terrorists’ linked to al-Qaeda, and decided to deport all foreign students in Yemeni schools and colleges. US president George Bush has praised Ali Saleh’s determination to honour his anti-terrorist pact with Washington. The US diplomats, however have not done their country, Ali Saleh or themselves any favours: their conduct has caused great resentment among Yemenis and unease in government circles.
But Saleh and his officials cannot seriously complain, as they have known all along that the diplomats’ mission, though carried out in secrecy, is directed at finding areas where ‘Islamic extremists’ are allegedly concentrated. Their main concern is that the issue has come into the open after an explosion near a hotel in a remote area where the US deputy ambassador was staying, and questions began to be asked about his reasons for being there. The explosion occurred on January 24 in the Sa’adat district (240 km north of Sana, the capital); there were no casualties.
According to one newspaper report, the main reason for the US deputy ambassador’s presence in Sa’adat district, which is close to the Saudi-Yemeni border, was to visit a Salafi school in the village of Damaj set up by Shaikh Muqbil Bin Hadi, who died last year almost 16 years after his expulsion from Saudi Arabia. The Americans are interested in the school, believing that it could be linked to the Qaeda network simply because its curriculum is based on strict Salafi teachings also advocated by Bin Ladin, the report adds. The Americans also speculate that the large presence of foreign students at the school may be explained by the links they suspect it has with Bin Ladin.
The US diplomats’ close interest in the curricula of Yemeni religious schools and colleges, and in those who attend them, has already paid dividends, as indicated by the decision of the government — made at the end of last year — to expel all foreign students and teachers, regardless of whether or not they have any connections with the al-Qaeda network. According to a report in al-Hayat daily on January 4, the authorities decided to expel all foreign students enrolled at religious schools, colleges and universities in Yemen, and to cancel all scholarships held by them. The report also quoted Yemeni security sources as saying that the security agencies are about to finalise procedures for expelling nearly 80 students and teachers, who are nationals of Arab and other states and are enrolled at the Institute of Dar al-Hadith, a Salafi establishment in Obeidah region. Attempts by Abu Hassan al-Masri, the director of the institute, to convince the Yemeni authorities that the students and teachers are above suspicion were brushed aside, the report said. Interestingly, members of the first group to be expelled are nationals of Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Indonesia, all suspected of ‘terrorism’ by Washington; the first two are thought to be probable targets of US bombing after Afghanistan.
The Yemeni authorities claim that they are expelling foreign students and teachers because of their violation of immigration laws. This cannot be true: the main emphasis is on security, rather than on the implementation of normal immigration rules, as indicated by measures introduced recently to deny entry to foreign nationals bound for Yemeni educational establishments unless they have permission from the security and intelligence agencies of their own countries. The new measures also place all Yemeni educational establishments under direct supervision by the ministers of education and higher education.
This emphasis on security issues, the harassment of religious establishments and the provocative behaviour of US diplomats — which have their roots in the anti-terrorist pact concluded by Ali Saleh and George Bush in Washington last November — have intensified anti-American feeling among politicians and public alike. The Ashumu’ newspaper has conveyed numerous requests from political and community leaders to president Saleh and members of the parliament, urging them to intervene immediately and pass legislation regulating the conduct of foreign diplomats. The newspaper singles out US and European diplomats for strong criticism, accusing the Americans of activities that routinely violate all diplomatic norms.
Anti-American sentiments among Yemenis are often expressed as criticism of US diplomats, including Edmond Hall, the ambassador. On January 24 Alwuhdah newspaper reported that ambassador Hall narrowly escaped an ambush in the heart of Sana, when a car tried to ram his limousine. The US embassy says that American diplomats in Yemen are targeted, but the Yemeni government counters that they are not, arguing that the danger is greatly exaggerated.
But if the Americans really feel at risk, they should not behave like emperors, instead of like diplomats. And if the government believes they are not targeted, there seems to be no reason for turning Sana into a fortress to protect them.