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2011-03-22

Jeremy Scahill: As Mass Uprising Threatens the Saleh Regime, a Look at the Covert U.S. War in Yemen

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The crisis in Yemen is growing following high-level defections from the regime of U.S.-backed President Ali Abudullah Saleh. On Monday, a dozen top military leaders announced their pledge to protect the protest movement after 45 people were killed and some 350 were wounded when Yemeni forces opened fire on demonstrators in the capital of Sana’a on Friday—after two months of nationwide demonstrations. In recent years, the United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military and security aid to Yemen. “The Obama administration has really escalated the covert war inside of Yemen and has dramatically increased the funding to Yemen’s military, particularly its elite counterterrorism unit, which is trained by U.S. Special Operations Forces," says Democracy Now! correspondent and independent journalist Jeremy Scahill. "It could get much worse if Ali Abdullah Saleh decides to unleash the U.S.-trained counterterrorist units on his own population." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The crisis in Yemen is mounting following a number of high-level defections from the regime of the U.S.-backed President Ali Abudullah Saleh. On Monday, a dozen top military leaders announced their allegiance to the protest movement after two months of nationwide demonstrations. Saleh labeled the defections an attempted coup against him that will lead to a bloody civil war. Saleh offered to step down as president by the end of the year, repeating a similar offer he made last month.

Meanwhile, the defecting military officials have vowed to defend protesters following a number of deadly attacks by Saleh’s forces. The worst came Friday, when 45 people were killed, over 350 wounded, when Yemeni forces opened fire on demonstrators in the capital Sana’a.

A number of Yemeni diplomats have also resigned, including ambassadors to seven countries. Four staffers at the Yemeni embassy in Washington say they no longer support Saleh’s government and are siding with the protesters. Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Alsaidi, also announced his resignation.

ABDULLAH ALSAIDI: Peaceful demonstrators were shot, in cold blood, and 52 persons perished as a result of snipers shooting them from balconies. I thought this is immoral, and it’s disturbing. And I thought that — how can I represent and articulate a policy that — and with good conscience, that will justify something like this, or find excuses to what happened on that infamous day?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s estimated well over a hundred people have been killed in the Yemeni government’s crackdown, a toll believed to rival the number killed in Libya. But the U.S. response has been markedly different. On Monday, the Obama administration called the recent violence "unacceptable" but announced no tangible steps to pressure Saleh’s government.

Over the past five years, the United States has provided more than $300 million in military and security aid to Yemen. Saleh’s forces have used U.S-manufactured equipment in the recent attacks on protests.

Democracy Now! correspondent, independent journalist, Jeremy Scahill, has been closely following the developments in Yemen. He joins us now in our studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened in the latest killings this weekend?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, well, on Friday there were horrifying images that came out of Yemen — people, a lot of people, being shot in the head, some being shot in the face by snipers on rooftop.

I want to say just at the onset that Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 30 years, he very well may be finished. This has been a largely or overwhelmingly nonviolent insurrection against him. But he also is an incredibly shrewd operator that has shown an unbelievable ability to survive through the Cold War, through the beginning of the so-called launch of the war on terror. I mean, when the Bush administration decided to basically launch a war against the world after 9/11, Yemen was on the initial list of targets that they were going to go into, because it’s Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, there is a known al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, it was a place where the lawless tribal regions of Yemen, which is most of the country, provided fertile ground for al-Qaeda to have training camps and other things.

So, Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, one of the first things he did after 9/11 was make arrangements to come to Washington, and he met with President Bush, with the CIA Director George Tenet, with Dick Cheney, with the head of the FBI. And he basically said to the Bush administration, “We’re going to give you full access to Yemen’s territories to conduct counterterrorist operations.” And, you know, they essentially hatched a plot where Yemen would extract funding for its own military out of the Bush administration in return for the Bush administration being able to conduct counterterrorist operations inside of Yemen, including the killing of Yemeni citizens.

In November of 2002, the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command launched a drone strike in the Ma’rib region of Yemen, and they actually killed six people, including a U.S. citizen from Buffalo, New York. That was the first strike outside of the battlefield of Afghanistan and Iraq that we know of, and it really set the doctrine in play that the world is a battlefield. So, Yemen, from the very jump of the so-called war on terror, has been a crucial fighting ground for the U.S.

The Obama administration has really escalated the covert war inside of Yemen and has dramatically increased the funding to Yemen’s military, particularly to its elite counterterrorism unit, which is trained by U.S. Special Operations Forces. So, what I think is important to recognize as we watch Yemeni security forces shooting dead their own citizens in the streets of Sana’a and other cities is that it could get much worse if Ali Abdullah Saleh decides to unleash the U.S.-trained counterterrorist units on his own population. To date, we don’t have any evidence that he’s done that, but what Saleh has done over the past decade is take U.S. assistance that’s meant for his forces to be trained to target al-Qaeda or the newer manifestation of al-Qaeda in Yemen, which is called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is a dual Saudi and Yemeni operation aimed at toppling both Saleh’s regime and the kingdom of Al Saud in Saudi Arabia — the Yemenis have taken that assistance, that training, that U.S. weaponry, the helicopters that have been laundered through Saudi Arabia but are really from the U.S., and has used it to fight an insurrection against his regime from the Houthi Shiite population in the north of Yemen and also the southern secessionist movement that has been trying to overthrow his government for a number of years. So, he has a history of misdirecting U.S. assistance.

The fact is that the U.S. has been almost entirely silent in the face of Saleh’s forces gunning down their own citizens, which stands in stark contrast to the position that the U.S. has taken on some of the other regimes in the area. And you can’t help but wonder if the U.S. is hoping that Saleh holds on in Yemen, because the head of the Counterterrorism Center in the United States said recently in front of Congress, as did the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula represents the single greatest terrorist threat to the United States. If Saleh leaves and there’s a vacuum of power, the U.S. predominance over Yemeni affairs when it comes to counterterror operation could be called into question.

The last thing I’ll say on this is that I’ve spent the past couple of months talking to former CIA people, former Special Operations people, former Defense Intelligence Agency people, who have all worked on Yemen for many, many years. All of them say that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula does not represent an existential threat to the United States. There are one-off incidents like the underwear bomber, Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was trained in Yemen. There are connections with Anwar Awlaki and others who have committed acts of terrorism. But we’re talking about three to five hundred people that are on the ground there in Yemen, so it’s sort of like you use a — not just a sledgehammer to conduct an operation that should be done with a scalpel, but you actually use like a howitzer to conduct these operations.

And the U.S. has forces on the ground in Yemen that have been directly killing people in unilateral operations. They’ve done air strikes inside of Yemen. They’ve trained Yemeni forces. The U.S. has spent a lot of money militarily in Yemen, and very little money, by comparison, building up Yemen’s civilian infrastructure. So, you could say that U.S. policy has played a central role in the last decade of destabilization in Yemen and has also undermined the authority of their own leader that they back by killing civilians in air strikes. So, I think that the Obama administration’s position on Yemen has been one of deafening silence thus far.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, when Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, went on her apology tour after the WikiLeaks release of the U.S. documents —

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — one of the places she stopped was in Yemen. She urged Yemen to step up security cooperation with the United States, but you could imagine, behind the scenes, very concerned about what the WikiLeaks documents were saying and what they revealed and the peril it put the U.S. — the Yemeni regime in. Very quickly, summarize what it said.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, General David Petraeus, when he was the head of U.S. Central Command, created what was called an "execute order" that authorized U.S. Special Operations Forces to go into countries and conduct kinetic operations, lethal operations, away from Afghanistan, Pakistan. These orders had been issued before, but it was sort of an update of this for the Obama administration. As part of this, the U.S. launched air strikes inside of Yemen in December of 2009, supposedly targeting al-Qaeda leaders. Yemen lied to its own people, the Yemeni government to its own people, and the world and said that they were Yemeni air strikes. But then Al Jazeera filmed and Amnesty International obtained photos of U.S. missiles at the site. And so, what the WikiLeaks cables show is that Yemen’s President and the Deputy Prime Minister said to David Petraeus, when he went there to meet with them after these strikes, “We’re going to continue to lie and say the missiles are ours and not yours.” And in fact, the Deputy Prime Minister said, “I just lied to the Parliament.” And so, when this was released, it was — it became abundantly clear to the world that Yemen was essentially acting as a proxy for the U.S. in these attacks.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go in one minute, but very quickly on the issue of the comparison of the U.S. response to Libya and Yemen. It’s believed thousands of people have been killed in Libya, not clear how many have been killed in Yemen, but what about the U.S. response?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, well, I mean, first of all, the no-fly zone has always been a recipe for disaster. It was a disaster in Iraq, where it resulted in a strengthening of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The U.S. has bombed Gaddafi’s house. The U.S. is bombing targets that have no aerial value whatsoever. You know, I’m against the U.S. policy in Libya for tactical and strategic reasons. I think that it could end up backfiring in a tremendous way and keeping Gaddafi in power even longer. And if the United States is going to start intervening in every failed rebellion or insurrection around the world, it’s going to be very, very busy. I think this was a reactionary policy with very little sight of an endgame. This morning we heard that an F-15 went down inside of Libya. Remember Donald Rumsfeld said in November of 2002, “Iraq might be five days, five weeks or five months, but no longer than that," and 50,000 U.S. troops and an equal number of private contractors remain there. So, I don’t see an endgame here. I think this is a classic case of knee-jerk “we need to remain relevant in the world so we’re going to take military action," while propping up ruthless dictators elsewhere that have conducted the same kinds of operations, or ignoring far worse humanitarian crises and far worse mass slaughter on the part of dictators around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He blogs at thenation.com, Democracy Now! correspondent. Thanks so much.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Thank you.

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