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Jeremy Scahill: U.S. Has Ignited Islamist Uprising in Impoverished, Divided Yemen

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Has U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen strengthened the very threat it sought to eliminate? We speak with journalist Jeremy Scahill, who reports in a new cover story for The Nation magazine that U.S. drone strikes, civilian drone casualties and deepening poverty in Yemen have all contributed to the rise of an Islamist uprising. “The arrogance of the U.S. was always thinking that whatever U.S. official was sent to Yemen was smarter than Ali Abdullah Saleh,” Scahill says. “[Saleh] was a master chess player, and he milked counterterrorism as his cash cow… [U.S.-supplied] forces have almost never been used to actually battle anyone determined to be terrorists. They’ve existed primarily for the defense of the Saleh regime.” [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today’s show in Yemen, where political turmoil is pushing the country to the brink of a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, says more than half of Yemen’s 12 million children are chronically malnourished. Unemployment in the country has reached 35 percent. Thirteen-year-old Osman told reporters he washes cars for spare change, earning under five U.S. dollars a month for his efforts.

OSMAN: [translated] The financial condition of my family is not good. We have many family members and run short of money. My father is ill in bed and can’t work. My family is also in debt.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world despite receiving over $300 million in military and security aid from the United States over the past five years. Much of that money has gone into an aggressive and controversial counterterrorism campaign rather than programs of humanitarian relief.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a new cover story in The Nation magazine says U.S. counterterrorism operations have ignited an Islamist uprising. The article by Jeremy Scahill, called “Washington’s War in Yemen Backfires,” says U.S. missile strikes, civilian drone casualties and deepening poverty in Yemen have all contributed to the rise of groups such as Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These groups have gained popularity partly by filling a void left by the central government in Yemen. They repair roads, restore electricity, distribute food, and run security patrols. The article goes on to say U.S. counterterrorism policy may have strengthened the very threat it sought to eliminate by linking military aid to counterterrorism efforts and inciting anger through drone warfare.

Jeremy Scahill joins us now to discuss his latest piece. He’s the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and a Democracy Now! correspondent.

Jeremy, welcome to Democracy Now! Welcome back, of course.


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this trip that you just recently returned from in Yemen.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, Yemen is in a situation right now where the only ruler that a unified Yemen has really known, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who governed the country for 33 years, is going to be officially leaving power. And there’s going to be an election next week where there’s only one candidate, the vice president of the country. And while this election is playing out in front of the eyes of the world, many Yemenis say they’re going to boycott it, that they don’t feel that it’s democratic, that an election does not mean you have one person that you either vote yes or no for. And so, you have protests that are sort of taking place around the capital of Sana’a. But the rest of Yemen, and even in the capital, Sana’a, is concerned more with local issues, issues of security and stability, than they are with participating in an election that they consider to be a sort of farce.

The only U.S. priority in Yemen, as has been articulated through U.S. funding, is the issue of counterterrorism. The United States is absolutely obsessed with 300 to 700 people that are members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has identified it as the single greatest terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland. And, you know, U.S. officials talk about AQAP, this group, in a way that I think gives it a lot more power than it’s capable of. Yes, the underwear bomber, the alleged underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, went to Yemen and then left Yemen and tried to bring down the airliner over Detroit. The parcel bomb plot, where there were these printer cartridges put on planes, and they attempted to ship them as explosives to Jewish community centers in the United States, originated in Yemen. And of course you had Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a U.S.-born cleric who basically—his entire power in the world was due to YouTube, where he would go on YouTube and, you know, make proclamations. And you saw him sort of get radicalized as the U.S. intensified attacks against Yemen. That’s about it. That’s what you have in Yemen. And yet it is the source of a great deal of funding on a counterterrorism level, and really obsessive-compulsive behavior on the part of U.S. intelligence officials.

Having said that, there is a real group in Yemen called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and they do in fact want to attack the United States. What’s happened, though, is that the Obama administration picked up from where the Bush administration left off. The Bush administration, beginning in the mid-2000s, started to build up Yemeni counterterrorism forces that were entirely controlled by Ali Abdulla Saleh’s family. His nephew, Yahya, ran the counterterrorism unit. His son, Ahmed Ali, ran the Republican Guard. They got all of this funding from the U.S. They built up those forces. Those forces have almost never been used to actually battle anyone determined to be terrorists. They’ve existed primarily for the defense of the Saleh regime. And all this U.S. money, way disproportion—disproportionate to the amount of money the U.S. has spent on humanitarian aid, has gone basically to the Saleh family military units.

Obama, though, did something that President Bush had only done once, to my knowledge, and that is to start to bomb Yemen. On December 17th, 2009, President Obama authorized cruise missile strikes against Yemen, and they smashed into a remote village in Abyan province called al-Majalah and killed more than 40 Bedouins. And when that incident happened, on December 17th, 2009, the Yemeni government took responsibility for those bombings and said that it was a counterterrorism operation, that it had succeeded, that a number of al-Qaeda people were killed. There were even reports that Awlaki himself was killed. Well, it turns out that, in fact, it was a U.S. missile strike, that it was Tomahawk cruise missiles. In fact, we were able to interview people from that village: one woman who lost seven members of her family; another man, 17 members of his family. It was a dirt poor Bedouin village that was hit. There was only one man that anyone in the area could identify as having any connection to al-Qaeda, and it was—he was a mujahideen during the war in Afghanistan, which, of course, the United States was supporting the mujahideen during the mujahideen war in the 1980s. That then kicked off a series of air strikes. The Obama administration began an air war in Yemen. Sometimes the strikes hit the people that were the intended targets, but oftentimes civilians were killed.

And so, what happened is that the prophecy envisioned by the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and envisioned by Anwar al-Awlaki, came true. And that was that the United States intended to turn Yemen into its next Afghanistan, its next Iraq, its next Pakistan. So you had the one-two punch—or actually, there were three punches. The first one is the air strikes. The second one is supporting Saleh family military units. And then the third is not funding any humanitarian programs and allowing the vast majority of the U.S. money to go toward units which were then used as agents of domestic repression.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Jeremy, let me ask you, because Saleh’s argument always was, for clinging to power, that he was the force of stability that would prevent al-Qaeda from growing in Yemen: to what degree is there domestic resistance that’s separate and apart from al-Qaeda in Yemen, armed resistance? And to what degree is it largely al-Qaeda?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, look, the arrogance of the U.S. was always thinking that U.S.—that whatever U.S. official was sent to Yemen was smarter than Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was a master chess player, and he milked counterterrorism as his cash cow. And he did it beginning in November of 2001, when he came to Washington and pitched President Bush on the idea that “I’m going to be your ally in the war on terror.” I mean, Ali Abdullah Saleh has sent jihadists to Afghanistan. There were—I remember, when I was in Baghdad in 2002, all of these Yemeni Baathists showed up in Baghdad to fight. There’s no way they would have gone there without the consent of the Saleh government. And so, Juan, to answer your question, yeah, the Saleh regime was very clever, and it used the U.S. paranoia, you know, about Islamic terrorism to get hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the U.S., when in reality, the strongest forces in Yemen opposing his government had almost nothing to do with al-Qaeda whatsoever.

In fact, you could argue that Ali Abdullah Saleh had a closer relationship to these Islamist militants than his domestic opponents. You have a southern secessionist movement. Yemen used to be two countries, remember. There was the socialist south, and then—which had all of the natural resources, and then there was the north. And Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to consolidate his grip on power when he unified the countries by bringing in all of these tribes that had been expelled by the socialists and saying, “Hey, I’m going to give you your power back.” So he had this patronage network that he set up of the tribes. But there is a very, very strong secessionist movement in the south. In fact, when we were in Aden, which is the port city in the south where the USS Cole was bombed in 2000, October of 2000, the southern flag was flying. There was graffiti on the walls: “North, get out of the south.” And I spoke with several powerful tribal sheikhs that said, “Now that Ali Abdullah Saleh is gone, we want southern Yemen to take over the south again.” In the north, you have a rebellion of a minority of Shiite Muslims. They’re called the Houthis. In fact, Ali Abdullah Saleh is not a Sunni; he’s a Zaidi Shiite from North Yemen. But he sided with all of these Sunni forces inside of Yemen. And the Houthis have been engaged in a rebellion against Saleh’s government for years. And the Saleh government has mercilessly pummeled the Houthis. And it’s drawn in a proxy war involving the Saudis attacking, on the one hand, and then you have the Houthis seeking out support, you know, from other Shiite allies in the region.

So Saleh has manipulated, masterfully, the threat of al-Qaeda to get weapons and to build up his forces, that could be used then only for the defense of the regime, only to take out his political opponents. When Ali Abdullah Saleh felt that the U.S. was ignoring him, all of a sudden 20 al-Qaeda suspects would escape from a prison. And so, you know, we went to this city, Zinjibar, which is in Abyan province in the south of Yemen. Almost no journalists have ever made it into that city. We went to the front lines to investigate, because a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia had taken over a number of towns, including Zinjibar. And when I started interviewing people who were very well connected to the security apparatus in Yemen, they said Ali Abdullah Saleh let them to take it over, as a sort of last message to the United States, that if you let me go, I am going to show you what will happen, and what will happen is that al-Qaeda is going to take over. And so, all of a sudden you see Ansar al-Sharia, you know, the supporters or partisans of Sharia law, taking over these cities and creating their own Sharia councils, doing very brutal acts against suspected criminals, chopping off limbs.

Just a few days ago, there were three public executions of people that were convicted in the Ansar al-Sharia’s court system of providing intelligence to the Americans to be used in drone attacks, including one person who was executed in the very place where Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was a U.S. citizen, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. And they executed this man, alleging that he had provided intelligence to the Americans that had contributed to the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki. You know, President Obama authorized strikes that resulted in three U.S. citizens being killed within less than a month in Yemen: Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico; Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son; and then Samir Khan, who was another U.S. citizen from North Carolina and was the editor of Inspire magazine, the English-language publication of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. All three of those U.S. citizens were killed within one month.

And so, you know, in short, what you have is suspicion that maybe Saleh allowed this to happen, on the one hand. But then, on the other hand, all of these powerful tribes, that are infinitely more powerful than al-Qaeda, that al-Qaeda wants no war with at all, because they would lose, are now starting to say, “If there’s no government here, if there’s no services, if the Americans are bombing us and killing Bedouins and our civilians and leaving cluster bombs in our countryside and doing nothing to clean them up, and not providing any civilian infrastructure support but just supporting Saleh’s family military and just bombing us, what motive do we have to fight al-Qaeda? They’re our—they’re people from our tribes. They don’t bother us. So, what’s our motivation?” One tribal leader, who said, very clearly, “Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization. Yes, these guys want to destroy America,” said to me, “You consider them terrorists; we consider the drones terrorism,” because they don’t bother—they don’t bother them. They’re a threat, on a tiny magnitude, to the United States and its allies, that has been given a prominence in the U.S. counterterrorism paranoia machine that is almost laughable, if it’s not so serious.

AMY GOODMAN: And the relationship between Ansar and AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, the first mentions of Ansar al-Sharia came from one of the leading clerics of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a couple of months before Zinjibar was seized. Zinjibar was—the city was taken by Ansar al-Sharia in May of 2011. And this leading AQAP cleric said, “Ansar al-Sharia is the name we use to introduce ourselves, you know, to communities when we’re trying to promote our political message.” So, essentially what he was saying is, “We’re trying to rebrand and not use the al-Qaeda brand, because it’s become so tarnished. And this is our new way of sort of presenting our mission without having to be bogged down by the baggage associated with calling ourselves al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Whether it’s a front group for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which senior government officials in Yemen and a lot of other analysts allege, yeah, it’s just a front group—whether that’s true or not has almost become irrelevant, because the ideas, the ideas advocated by Ansar al-Sharia, are actually taking root. And so, that’s why this is blowback, because you have a rising—you have multiple Salafist, very conservative sort of sects of Islam that are becoming increasingly popular in Yemen. You have a lawless state. You have an implosion of the government. You have a political crisis where the only opportunity for people to vote is “do you want this man or not?” Once again, you follow a 33-year dictatorship by having a vote where only one person is on the ballot. And people are sort of saying, well, for now, it’s better to have law and order—and yeah, these guys are beheading thieves and all that stuff, but—or chopping off hands of thieves, beheading alleged spies, but hey, it’s better than no law and order.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And meanwhile, the popular movement that got all the attention, because it was in the cities and it was easier to cover by the foreign press, how is it faring, especially vis-à-vis these upcoming elections and the possibility of any real change in the country?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, you had all these—like in so many other countries we’ve seen, it was fueled by young people bravely coming out into public squares and holding demonstrations. And that youth revolution that really sparked this movement in Yemen has been sidelined, and now you have an attempt to co-opt it from two of Saleh’s former henchmen. One, General Ali Mohsen, was the most powerful military man in the country, head of the First Armored Division. He “defected,” quote-unquote, to the opposition, and very crudely just tried to co-opt it. But he has a huge number of armed men behind him. And then, Sheikh Omar, who was one of Saleh’s greatest supporters, “brought his weight over,” quote-unquote, to the opposition. And then the Islah Party, which is the official sort of loyalist opposition party in Yemen for a long time, which is sort of—you know, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is the main political opposition now. The youth of Yemen that came into the square are not adequately represented at all among the people that are going to be the future power brokers of Yemen.

And let’s be clear on one thing—and no one wants to talk about this: Ali Abdullah Saleh was a popular leader and had support. I’m not saying that all of Yemen was behind him; it was an incredibly divided country. But this wasn’t a guy—he didn’t go the way of Mubarak, for a reason: he had a lot of support and a lot of people, tribes, whose livelihood depended on him. And he was a, I have to say this again, a master chess player, domestically and internationally.

AMY GOODMAN: Liked or feared?

JEREMY SCAHILL: So—what’s that?

AMY GOODMAN: Liked or feared?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think—I think both. I think feared, because, you know, you wouldn’t want to get stuck in the Yemeni prison system. There were demonstrators that seemed to be outright murdered, you know, particularly in March of 2011. There was widespread political repression. The Saleh family controlled everything in the country. No question he was a dictator—and a violent, brutal dictator at that. But there are—and I met many people who very passionately articulated why they supported Ali Abdullah Saleh. And, you know, so I think, yeah, a lot of people did fear him. He also paid the right people at the right time.

AMY GOODMAN: The president now, Saleh, is staying at the Ritz-Carlton, and there’s been a number of protests outside the luxury hotel denouncing President Obama’s decision to allow Saleh to enter the United States. I wanted to—one of the protests, the Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner, Tawakkul Karman, addressed the protest via cell phone and called for Saleh to be tried in the International Criminal Court. This is one of the protesters, Amel Ahmed.

AMEL AHMED: Dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh is staying at this hotel, so we came out to protest the fact that our government would allow him into this country, to begin with. We don’t feel that he should be here in the United States of America. We think it sends the wrong message to the Middle East. If you’re saying that you support democracy in the Middle East and you’re anti-extremism in the Middle East, then you shouldn’t be supporting dictators. You should be supporting people on the ground who are calling for democracy. I mean, for years, we’ve criticized the Muslim world for turning to extremism and not sharing the same democratic values. Meanwhile, we have an entire generation that’s rising up and demanding democracy, and meanwhile, we’re here hosting a dictator in a five-star hotel. I mean, it’s just—the message is conflicting, and there should be a consistent message coming from the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: And one of the protesters threw a shoe at Saleh when he was leaving the Ritz-Carlton or entering it.


AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, what is Saleh’s fate? Elections are coming up.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think part of the reason why the United States brought Ali Abdullah Saleh to the U.S. was they—the idea was they wanted to get him away from Yemen so that some kind of a transition could take place, although my understanding from—I’ve talked with Saleh’s people. He fully intends to go back and be there when his vice president takes power, and he wants to be there for that ceremony. And, you know, I mean, it’s interesting because Saleh is going to continue to be a very powerful person in Yemen, regardless of what any of his opponents believe. His party is going to survive. He is going to be an incredibly powerful man.

And I think that the real question for the U.S. right now is what’s going to happen with its counterterrorism operations going forward. Part of the reason why the Obama administration was so slow to overtly agitate for Saleh’s departure is because they’re afraid that whoever comes next is going to—is not going to be as cooperative. And it’s almost certain that they will not be as cooperative. I interviewed leading members of the Islah Party, and they said, “We will not be contractors for the U.S. government. We’ll be partners, but we won’t be contractors.” And they said that, you know, that Saleh was used as a contractor by the U.S.

Now, there’s problems with that analysis, but the point being, Yemenis of all political stripes don’t like these bombings. They don’t like the fact that the Obama administration and the Bush administration built up the Saleh family military. So, you know, the U.S. has not generated a lot of good will in almost any quarters in Yemen, because—I mean, the demonstrators perceived it as “Why is the U.S. continuing to support this guy?” on the one hand. And then everyone is saying, “Why are you bombing civilians? You know, we don’t care if you” — a lot of people say, “We don’t care if you kill al-Qaeda people, but you’re not killing al-Qaeda people. They’re walking around in restaurants.” You know, the two senior leaders of al-Qaeda, Wahishi and al-Shihri, apparently were just in a restaurant in Shabwa province the other day. And I know that because the tribal leader who saw them in the restaurant and said he said “As-Salaam Alaikum” to them, and they said “As-Salaam Alaikum” back, was like, “Oh, yeah, I see them all the time now. The U.S. doesn’t—they’re bombing the wrong places. These guys are just walking around.” So the perception is that the U.S. has been wrong constantly, always gotten it wrong on Yemen. The vast majority of Yemenis see it that way.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And it doesn’t look, at this stage, as there’s—a civil war is going to break out, which is what the U.S. government is claiming it fears, and in reality, there’s more—the civil war has really erupted in Syria more than it has in Yemen, even though that was feared to be the main country that was going to fall apart.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, there’s a thousand civil wars in Yemen, you know, every week that happen. And, you know, it’s—there’s not really a government there. The tribes control everything. And so, there’s already, you know, all these civil wars. The key to resolving anything in Yemen is working through the sort of labyrinth tribal system there. And the U.S. is just pissing off all of these tribes.

AMY GOODMAN: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to get information about the bombing, the killing of Awlaki, of his son. Talk about that.


AMY GOODMAN: And trying to get information, suing them for continually invoking state secrets.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, in Yemen, I spent a lot of time with Anwar al-Awlaki’s family, with his father, with the head of the Awlaki tribe. You know, and they—people understand why the U.S. government killed Anwar al-Awlaki, but these are also very intelligent people who have spent time in the U.S. Awlaki’s dad went to school here. And he said, “Is it normal in the United States that you assassinate your own citizens when they haven’t been charged with a crime?” I mean, Awlaki wasn’t convicted of anything. He wasn’t charged with any crime in a U.S. court. This has nothing to do with what we think of him as a person. There’s rules of law and order. And so, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, prior to Awlaki being assassinated on authority from President Obama, simply tried to ask the U.S. government, “On what authority are you going to assassinate this U.S. citizen?”

AMY GOODMAN: Right. CCR represented his father, right?

JEREMY SCAHILL: They represented his father. And that case was ultimately thrown out. And, you know, no one in Congress wants to touch this, except Senator Wyden and Dennis Kucinich. Senator Wyden said that it’s unacceptable that the Obama administration has still not provided Congress—not about the American people, Congress—with the authority that they killed Awlaki under.

Then, two weeks later, after Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two U.S. citizens, are killed—by the way, Samir Khan’s family was called by the State Department after he was killed. And they didn’t say, “We killed him.” They said, you know, “Your son,” who’s a U.S. citizen, “was killed in Yemen,” and expressed condolences for him. Then, two weeks later, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who is a normal teenager, who hadn’t seen his dad in years, who was living with his grandparents, on Facebook, going out for dinner with his friends, a normal 16-year-old kid, is killed in a strike. And the claim was he was with an AQAP leader, al-Banna. Al-Banna wasn’t killed in that strike; he wasn’t there. Who was the target in the strike that killed a 16-year-old U.S. citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki? I don’t claim to know, but as a journalist and as an American citizen, we have a right to know. Why did three U.S. citizens get killed in less than a month on President Obama’s authorization? Why?

So the ACLU and CCR, Center for Constitutional Rights, are simply trying to do what journalists should be doing, what members of Congress should be doing, which is to say, if the U.S. is asserting its right to kill its own citizens without trial, without due process, why? Under what authority? How is it legal? And so, that’s what’s at the heart of what the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU are doing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we want to thank you for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, award-winning investigative journalist, author of the bestselling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, he is just recently back from Yemen, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. His cover story is called “Washington’s War in Yemen Backfires.” Thanks, Jeremy.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to talk about assassinations. We’re going to talk about Israel and Iran. Stay with us.

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