Yemen has been the focus of growing international concern over insecurity and Islamist extremism. US officials say the suspect in the failed Christmas Day bombing is now providing valuable intelligence in hunting the US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who the Obama administration has approved for assassination. Democracy Now!’s Anjali Kamat speaks to Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee, who writes for the Dubai-based Gulf News and the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Yemen, which has been the focus of growing international concern over insecurity and Islamist extremism. US officials say the suspect in the failed Christmas Day bombing is now providing valuable intelligence in hunting the US-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who the Obama administration has approved for assassination. He’s been accused of having ties to the failed Christmas Day airline bombing, as well as the shooting at Fort Hood.
Well, last week, the Washington Post reported the US military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops that have killed scores of people, including civilians and suspected al-Qaeda leaders in recent weeks. The operations have been approved by President Obama and involve several dozen troops from the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.
US ally Saudi Arabia has also launched attacks inside Yemen. Earlier today, Yemeni rebels said Saudi Arabia killed fifteen people in a bombing near the Yemen-Saudi border.
Well, Democracy Now!'s Anjali Kamat recently spoke to Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee, who writes for the Dubai-based Gulf News and the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly. She asked him about his expectations from a recent international conference on Yemen.
NASSER ARRABYEE: The London conference, which was called by Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown — the Yemeni people or the — the Yemeni people are expecting from this conference to help Yemen in a way that makes it get out of its problems, not to make it worse. Yemeni people, at the same time, are very concerned that this conference will come out with any sort of direct intervention to Yemen, because this will make it worse and worse.
ANJALI KAMAT: Nasser, Yemen has been very much in the news here in the United States as a haven for al-Qaeda. As a longtime Yemeni journalist, what do you see as the main concerns of people in Yemen?
NASSER ARRABYEE: In fact, Yemen now is facing three challenges at least, mega-challenges, and al-Qaeda is only one of them. But unfortunately, the Western media is focusing only on al-Qaeda. And al-Qaeda maybe is only, as I told you, is only one of these three challenges: I mean, the armed rebellion in the north and the separation calls in the south and al-Qaeda. And also, there is some — the third challenge, which is the economy. There's a lot of economic problems and economic hardships the people are facing.
ANJALI KAMAT: Can you talk a little bit about each of these challenges? You mentioned four: one being the war in the north, which has been going on since 2004; the separatists in the south; and the presence of al-Qaeda; and also you mentioned the economy. Latest figures I’ve seen, unemployment is up to 40 percent.
NASSER ARRABYEE: Exactly, yes. So, the armed rebellion in the north started in 2004, but it stopped, and it was on and off during this time. But now it started in August, in August 2009, and now it’s still carrying on. It is still going on. And I think now, internally, it is the biggest challenge Yemen is facing. It is the biggest. And I mean for Yemenis, it is the biggest.
And the separation calls in the south is the second challenge Yemen is facing. But as I said, it is not that challenge, because it can be politically solved.
ANJALI KAMAT: And in terms of the rebellion in the north, can you talk a little bit about how many people have been displaced by this? What the Yemeni government has been fighting, this all-out war against the north, what‘s been the effect on people living in the area?
NASSER ARRABYEE: Unfortunately, more than 200,000 people displaced because of this war in the north, and the number is increasing, and the situation is getting worse and worse.
ANJALI KAMAT: How easy is it for you as a journalist to go to the north and cover what’s happening in the north?
NASSER ARRABYEE: Unfortunately, nobody can go. And this is a big problem. The government cannot — the government will not allow anyone to go there. And this is a problem.
ANJALI KAMAT: And talk about the recent news reports of US drone attacks against al-Qaeda targets, also reports of Yemeni airplanes bombing al-Qaeda targets. A number of civilians have died in some of these attacks.
NASSER ARRABYEE: There were about fifty — about fifty civilians who were killed in one of these strikes, which targeted al-Qaeda, a training camp.
ANJALI KAMAT: Who carried out these strikes?
NASSER ARRABYEE: The Yemeni government. The Yemeni government with support from the American government.
ANJALI KAMAT: Talk about the US relationship with Yemen.
NASSER ARRABYEE: Without the help of the United States and Saudi Arabia, I think Yemen will be in — will collapse, if there is no. But at the same time, United States should be very careful in providing the assistance to and the support to Yemen, because, for example, if there’s any direct intervention, it will be in the interests of al-Qaeda, not the interests of combating al-Qaeda. The United States focuses on the intelligence and security. And US military, for example, they fund now special forces, or what they call anti-terror special forces. So the Yemeni — the American government always focuses on the security issue at the expense of the development and democracy. And this is, in fact, not good and — because they can also combat terrorism by supporting development and the other issues.
ANJALI KAMAT: And the Saudi support for Yemen?
NASSER ARRABYEE: It’s different. The Saudi now is supporting Yemen in everything to the extent that they were involved in the war against the rebels.
ANJALI KAMAT: Al-Qaeda has had a long presence in Yemen. It didn’t just appear this past year. Would you say the Yemeni government has allowed al-Qaeda to grow in Yemen? Or have they been taking a strong stance against al-Qaeda over these past several years?
NASSER ARRABYEE: In fact, before December 17th, 2009, the government has been some lenient with al-Qaeda, or the government was using al-Qaeda sometimes in some political things. And this is a very bad thing. For example, like in the summer, political opponents. But after December 17th, I think the government was clear to declare the war against al-Qaeda, and there is now very strong crackdown against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
ANJALI KAMAT: You mentioned these multiple crises that Yemen is going through right now. What’s been the impact of the Yemeni government’s military response to the war in the north, to the rebellion in the north and the uprising in the south, on civil liberties in the country? How are activists and journalists being targeted? What’s their response?
NASSER ARRABYEE: In fact, the civil liberties are always the victim of this curse, if I can say, because, you know, the government sometimes uses what is going on as an excuse to repress the human rights activists and the journalists. And this is a very bad thing. There have been arrests. There have been harassments against journalists, intimidations and also trials. And these things were happening a lot during this year and last year.
AMY GOODMAN: Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee, he writes for the Gulf News in Dubai and the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Weekly.