“Al-Qaeda” Takeover of Radaa: Saleh’s Latest Ploy?
Ali Abdallah Saleh has not tired of playing the al-Qaeda card to retain any toehold of power in Yemen well after he was ostensibly reduced to an honorary president by the Gulf Initiative.
Sanaa – “Either me, or al-Qaeda” has long been the message Saleh has sought to press home.
He did that last May in the southern governorate of Abyan, when he ordered security forces in Zinjibar to keep the town gates open and mount no resistance against an invasion by hundreds of armed men. The regime later said they belonged to al-Qaeda.
Saleh was at it again last month, shortly before his departure to the US for medical treatment, though the stage-management this time was dire.
A tribal sheikh named Tareq al-Dahab, who wields considerable clout within his heavily-armed and famously fierce clan, descended on the town of Radaa, 170 km southeast of Sanaa in the governorate of al-Bayda. Units of the Central Security Forces and Republican Guards deployed in the vicinity but put up no resistance.
With nothing standing in their way, Dahab and his men moved into the town as though on a picnic or hunting trip. They went on to occupy it completely and proclaim an Islamic Emirate.
The group proceeded to the main al-Ameriyah Mosque, where in between performing sunset and evening prayers, Dahab delivered a sermon. It featured a pledge of allegiance to Nasser al-Wuhayshi and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, respectively the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Dahab also announced a number of administrative decrees. In a bid to curry favor with local people, he ordered gasoline station owners to slash fuel prices to what they had been before the outbreak of Yemen’s youth-led popular revolution last year.
The gunmen then made for al-Ameriyah Castle, an ancient fort overlooking the town. But they did not stop there. Over the course of the next two days, Dahab and his fighters took over the rest of the town, including the central prison, where they released all the inmates.
According to Yemen’s Deputy Information Minister, Abdu al-Jundi, the jailbreak was intended to recruit more members for the group. Weapons were given to any convicts who were willing to join. That was denied by Dahab, however, who issued a statement claiming he had only freed two of his own followers from the prison.
Dahab later released a video recording of himself proclaiming that “the Islamic Caliphate is coming, even if we must sacrifice our souls and our skulls for its sake!” He pledged to liberate the entire Arabian Peninsula, after first “bringing about the rule of Islamic sharia in Yemen in line with the wishes of the people.”
Meanwhile in Sanaa, the military commission set up in accordance with the Gulf Initiative to oversee ending “armed manifestations” in urban areas convened. It reviewed efforts to get barricades dismantled and armored vehicles taken off the streets of the capital and of Yemen’s third-largest city, Taiz. The Commission issued a statement applauding the progress made in this regard and announced that a fact-finding mission would be formed to look into the developments in Radaa.
But local tribal leaders had other ideas about what needed to be done.
Conditions in the town had deteriorated sharply, the security forces having disappeared after allowing Dahab and his fighters to take over. People were out on the streets guarding their homes and shops with whatever weapons they had at hand.
Particularly alarming was the presence of all those freed convicts among the gunmen. Many of the released prison inmates had committed revenge-killings, or been convicted of serious crimes such as rape, murder, and armed robbery. They included 165 men who had been formally sentenced to death.
Local sources said that Dahab’s men did not enter the town en masse, as media reports suggested, but collected there over a period of time. Local sheikhs repeatedly approached the authorities about the growing numbers of armed strangers appearing in the town, but their complaints went unheeded.
The sheikhs met to consider the situation and decided to issue an ultimatum. Dahab and his followers were given three days to leave Radaa, or be expelled by force. Dahab requested an extension to allow for negotiations with the sheikhs on a mutually-acceptable solution without having to resort to arms. Eventually, under tribal pressure, he agreed to pull out his men, in exchange for the authorities acceding to a number of demands he put forward – notably the release of his youngest brother Nabil from the Political Security Prison in Sanaa.
A bigger surprise was sprung by another brother, Khaled al-Dahab, when he revealed in remarks to the press that Tareq al-Dahab had long worked closely with Saleh’s national security apparatus and his former interior minister. The question was immediately raised whether Dahab was truly affiliated to al-Qaeda or had been acting at the behest a security agency.
Al-Dahab has never been outside Yemen and his name has never been linked to al-Qaeda or its operations. His only connection to the group is that his sister used to be married to Anwar al-Awlaqi, the radical preacher believed to be a leading light of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was killed in an American drone strike last year.
Hilal conceded that the group does operate in nearby areas and in other parts of Yemen – unlike many opposition supporters, who deny that al-Qaeda exists at all in the country and claim it is a fiction invented by Saleh to serve his purposes. But it was clear from the way Radaa was taken over that the group involved was connected to Saleh’s regime, he said.
“He wants to cause renewed confusion in the country and take it back to square one,” Hilal charged.
Another journalist, Khaled Abd al-Hadi of the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party newspaper al-Thawri, agreed that it was unreasonable to deny that al-Qaeda had established a permanent presence in Yemen.
But he said that the regime was playing a major role in developments, and al-Qaeda was seeking to exploit the breakdown of security in the country to extend its control to new areas.
This could have grave consequences, he warned. The group could try to move on Dhamar to the northwest of Radaa, a town inhabited mainly by members of the Zaydi sect and home to a Zaydi religious center. That would be seen as launching “a clearly sectarian war,” he said.
“There are armed Zaydi tribes in Dhamar province, fierce fighters. They are will not stand back in the face of any attack on them,” he said.
The suspicion that Saleh has a hand in such schemes is widely shared. Even an official of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party, speaking to Al-Akhbar on condition of anonymity, charged that prior to departing Yemen, Saleh had taken a number of measures “as part of an attempt to plunge the country into chaos.”
This despite the immunity he received from prosecution for anything he may have done during his 33 years in office.
Meanwhile, the alarm has been raised about the reported arming of GPC members, especially in Taiz and the city of al-Dalei south of the capital.
Informed sources say the main immediate objective is to foil the early presidential elections scheduled for February 21, in a bid to take Yemen, as Hilal put it, ”back to square one.”
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