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Report: Obama Ordered US Military Strike on Yemen

StoryDecember 23, 2009
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We take a look at Yemen, the latest target of US-backed military strikes against suspected al-Qaeda sites. ABC News reports that President Obama directly ordered two cruise missile attacks in Yemen last week. According to the New York Times, the United States gave Yemeni forces military hardware and intelligence to carry out the attack. We speak with Yemen expert, Towson University Professor Charles Schmitz. [includes rush transcript]

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


We turn now to the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen, the latest target of US-backed military strikes against suspected al-Qaeda sites. ABC News reports that President Obama directly ordered two cruise missile attacks in Yemen last week. According to the New York Times, the United States gave Yemeni forces military hardware and intelligence to carry out the attack.

The Yemeni government says the raids targeted al-Qaeda training camps and foiled a planned series of suicide bombings. Admiral Mike Mullen praised the attacks, citing concerns that Yemen was becoming, quote, “another safe haven for terrorism.”

The main target of the attacks, al-Qaeda member Qasim al Rim, was not among those killed, but a local Yemeni official said Sunday that over two-thirds of the dead were civilians, including twenty-three children and seventeen women.

At a speech last month announcing the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama hinted at a possible attack on Yemen.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. America will have to show our strength in the way that we end wars and prevent conflict, not just how we wage wars. We’ll have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where al-Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold, whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere, they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.


Last week’s strikes on alleged al-Qaeda hideouts come in the midst of the Yemeni government’s battle against a rebellion in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south. Saudi Arabia is backing Yemen’s five-year-old war in the north, and Yemeni rebel forces claim that Saudi air strikes Sunday night killed fifty-four people.

For more, I’m joined now from Baltimore, Maryland by Professor Charles Schmitz. He teaches geography at Towson University He’s a specialist on Yemen and president of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies.

Professor Schmitz, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain the significance of the US attacks on Yemen last week.


I think the attacks are significant, given what President Obama said in Oslo and the quote that you just gave. I think it is a new strategy, developing new strategy, that the United States become directly involved in attacks in Yemen. The United States has attacked Yemen in the past. We used one of the first Predator strikes within Yemen in 2002, I believe it was. But this seems to be a new policy.


And what has been the response in Yemen? First, I believe it was the Yemeni government saying it was just the Yemeni military that engaged in this. And what is the relationship between the United States and the Yemen government?


The relationship between the Yemeni government and the United States is quite ambiguous. It’s been kind of a back-and-forth dance for a long time. The Yemeni government has cooperated with the United States in the war on terror. And the Yemeni government was fighting its own sort of war on terror prior to 9/11. And when there were doubts expressed in Washington in the early days after 9/11, the Yemeni president went to Washington. There was a conversation between the Yemeni president and President Bush, in which the Yemeni president assured President Bush that the Yemeni government would assist in the war on terror. There’s been disagreements on what exactly that means. And so, it is an ambiguous relationship.

The United States does supply Yemen with anti-terror equipment, with military equipment. It tends to be equipment that’s geared to deal with surveillance, with control of borders, coast guard, anti-terror units, and not sort of conventional warfare weaponry.

In terms of the reaction in Yemen, Yemen is in a very difficult political situation right now, and so the reaction in Yemen is very much refracted through the lens of domestic politics. And as you mentioned, there’s a rebellion in the south. One of the strikes was in Abyan in the south, which is an area where the secessionist —- civil disobedience, secessional movement is quite strong. And there, people on the ground saw lots of civilian casualties, and they saw this as the United States backing what have been rather repressive tactics of the Yemeni regime of the movement in the south. The al-Houthi in the north also criticized it. They equate it with, as you mentioned, the Saudi air strikes in the north that also killed civilian casualties. So, you have to understand that within Yemen -—


Explain who the Houthi are. Professor Schmitz, explain who the Houthi are.


The al-Houthi are part – they’re Zaydis. They are — we can say it’s part of a Zaydi revivalist movement. The Zaydis are Shia. Most of North Yemen is Zaydi; somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of North Yemen is Zaydi. The president and most of the top military are also Zaydi. So it’s really a political conflict.

But the Zaydi in Sa’dah, they are the old religious aristocracy. Yemen was ruled by a religious aristocracy for about a thousand years. And in 1962, there was a republican coup that established the republic. What’s interesting is, in that, following that coup, there was a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in which the Saudis backed, in essence, the Zaydis in the north, the Zaydi aristocracy, because the Zaydi aristocracy was royalists, and the Saudi government was supporting royalism against the republican trends in Yemen. The republic won.

Now, sort of some of those same folks, the Saudis are against. The Yemeni government, in fact, the president supported this guy, al-Houthi Badreddin, the guy who began this movement. He supported them between 1997 and 2004, because he saw them as a counterweight against Wahhabi and Salafist movements that were in the north that the president had initially backed, but then was worried about them getting too strong. So the situation is quite complex.

We can say that the rebellion in the north is about a region who feels marginalized, who was at the losing end of a civil war in the ’60s, and who feels that their religious identity and their sort of political, economic survival is at risk, that this government has not done what it is asked to do in terms of bringing development, that it discriminates against it, that it feels that it has to take matters into its own hands.


We’re talking to Charles Schmitz, who is a professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore, also president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

So, is the US working with Saudi Arabia hand-in-hand in Yemen? And is al-Qaeda there? Is al-Qaeda training there? And the effects of these attacks, like last week’s, the US on the civilian population? Does it radicalize them?


The Saudis have a long relationship with Yemen. They have also an ambiguous relationship with Yemen. The Saudi — the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is somewhat like the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Mexico is a very poor country, somewhat unstable, and its problems spill into the United States. That’s the fear of the Saudis, that Yemen is going to destabilize and that its problems will spill into Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are also sometimes afraid of a strong, united Yemeni state, so they have an ambiguous relationship to Saudi Arabia.

The United States followed Saudi policy, basically let the Saudis tell us what to do, until the ’90s, when Yemen unified. It was a divided Cold War state, a north and a south. The south was a Soviet satellite state. And when Yemen unified, the United States started to develop an independent policy. So, no, the United States has its own policy that is somewhat different than the Saudi policy in Yemen.

In terms of the radicalization, one of the — one of the difficulties of US policy — we see this, I think, in Pakistan, as well —- is that, you know, what is our endgame in the war on terror? The endgame in the war on terror, of course, is stability and peace and prosperity, to get people to buy into the system, to feel that the regime that they live in they have a stake in. And in Yemen -—


We have ten seconds.


In Yemen, we’re afraid that the regime is going to fall, and so we want to take our own action, but that may also de-legitimize the regime. So we’re playing a delicate balance here.


Charles Schmitz, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of geography at Towson University and specialist on Yemen, president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

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