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A Coup in Yemen? Jeremy Scahill & Iona Craig on Rebel Offensive to Seize Power, Saudi Role & AQAP

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As the world focuses on the threat posed by al-Qaeda in Yemen, the Yemeni government is on the verge of collapse. A dispute between Shia Houthi rebels and the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi has sparked the capital Sana’a’s worst violence in months. Houthi fighters have reportedly entered Yemen’s presidential palace in a possible coup attempt. This comes days after fighters abducted the president’s chief of staff. As the government fights the Houthis, it also wages a U.S.-backed offensive against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose insurgency has only grown deadlier by the year. The latest unrest comes days after AQAP took responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Will the Yemeni government be overthrown in a coup? We are joined by two guests: Iona Craig, a journalist who has reported from Yemen for years and until recently was its last accredited foreign reporter; and Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of the The Intercept and the reporter who broke the story that AQAP took credit for the Charlie Hebdo killings. Scahill reported from Yemen extensively for his book and documentary film, “Dirty Wars.”

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

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Yemen, where the capital Sana’a is seeing its worst violence in months. Intense clashes between government forces and Shia Houthi rebels have sowed chaos and raised fears of a coup. The latest round of fighting broke out this weekend when the Houthis kidnapped the chief of staff to President Abdu Hadi. The Houthis are protesting the text of a new draft constitution that would divide Yemen into six federal regions. Talks for the charter began under a peace deal reached in September after Houthis mobilized large protests and captured most of Sana’a by force. They were supposed to withdraw in the months since, but have only expanded their hold.

Now the country faces political collapse. On Monday, new gun battles erupted as Houthi fighters surrounded the prime minister’s residence and the presidential palace. The attack came despite a second ceasefire between the two sides. The capital appears calm for now, but tensions are high.

AMY GOODMAN: The Houthis’ rise has further upended Yemen’s fragile political order. As the government fights the Houthis, it also wages a U.S.-backed offensive against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP. Despite the long-running U.S. drone war, the al-Qaeda insurgency has only grown deadlier each year. The Houthis themselves have also fought al-Qaeda at the same time as they now take on the Yemeni government. The Houthis appear to have major backing from longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ousted leader who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011. The latest unrest also comes days after al-Qaeda in Yemen took responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Iona Craig is with us, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. She was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014. The government has cracked down on local and foreign journalists, and at one point last year Iona Craig was the country’s last accredited foreign reporter. She’s joining us now, though, from London.

And we’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of the TheIntercept.org. Just days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Jeremy broke the story that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had taken credit. He cited a confidential al-Qaeda source in Yemen. Days later, AQAP put out an official statement confirming it took responsibility.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Iona Craig, let’s begin with you. Just tell us what is happening right now in Yemen and who the Houthi militants are.

IONA CRAIG: What’s happening now is it’s really political posturing on behalf of the Houthis. They’re trying to get leverage to get this draft constitution changed, which they don’t agree with. So they’ve kidnapped the presidential aide, the chief of staff, in order to get that leverage. And then the fighting that we saw in the last 24 hours was also part of that. So the negotiations at the moment are going on for the release of Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, the chief of staff, in exchange for changing the draft constitution.

But the issue with the Houthis, the Houthis were first formed as a movement in 2004. They then fought the government in six wars between 2004 and 2010. But they then became part of the Arab Spring. They put down their weapons. They joined the protests. They joined the sit-ins, particularly in Sana’a, and became part of that peaceful movement. But the transition that followed that was backed by the international community—and actually instigated by the U.S. in the first place—did not go their way. So when the national dialogue was concluded in January last year and the decision was made about federalism and to divide the country into six regions, the Houthis weren’t happy about that. And that was when they started taking territory. So they were pushing from their stronghold, if you like, in Sa’dah up in the north, which is up by the Saudi border, and they started pushing south toward Sana’a.

This was also then an opportunity for Ali Abdullah Saleh to join in, because the Houthis’ main enemy is Islah, which is Yemen’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood, who had gained a lot of power after the Arab Spring and a lot of political power. So they had a joint enemy. So, between the support of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthis, they were able to take that ground, they were able to beat the Islahi-supported tribes, and eventually got to Sana’a in September. And in the space of four days of fighting, the minister of interior then ordered the troops to stand down, and they took control of the city.

AARON MATÉ: When you say the Houthis are engaging in political posturing, do you mean then that they’re not trying to carry out a coup, despite all this fighting in the capital?

IONA CRAIG: I think it’s really hard to determine whether that’s the case or not. In September, they had the opportunity to do that. They could have kicked President Hadi out at that point, but they didn’t, which makes me think that they probably won’t do that now. It depends how far they’re pushed. If they don’t get their way with the constitution, then they may indeed do that. But I think the Houthis have so far stopped short of actually taking physical power. Again, they could have put their own people up as ministers when the new government was formed at the end of last year, but they chose not to do so, because it means that then they are not held responsible for when the government collapses and things go wrong, where they’re taking this silent control by trying to manipulate the government, take control inside ministries, without actually having their own men in power.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, how does what’s going on in Yemen right now, a place you also have spent time in and reported from, relate to what happened in France and AQAP, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, taking responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, one of the things that’s interesting, just to add to what—you know, to Iona’s analysis, which I think is really spot-on, is that the Houthis have been a really interesting political football of sorts in the U.S. policy in Yemen. They have also been bombed repeatedly by the Saudis, you know, Saudi Arabia waging a not-so-secret war, bombing the Houthis. In the WikiLeaks cables, you see that when Ali Abdullah Saleh was in charge, officially in power in Yemen, he would consistently say to the United States, “We have to do something about the Houthis, because they’re being backed by Iran.” And actually, to the credit of U.S. diplomats, they said, “Well, you know, we don’t exactly think that that’s true.” And what was happening is that Ali Abdullah Saleh was a master manipulator of the United States, and he was looking for any way he could to justify getting more military assistance, more money to bolster his own forces that were supposedly fighting al-Qaeda, to actually use them to shore up his own power base. So, when the well was sort of dry, started to dry up with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula at points, he would then sort of appeal to the United States and say, “Hey, we have these Iranian agents in the form of the Houthis inside of Yemen.” And so, what we’re seeing right now is that Ali Abdullah Saleh, who actually himself is a Zaydi Shiite and has roots in that region, has now flipped sides and, as Iona said, is sort of the not-so-hidden hand behind some of the power grab efforts of the Houthis.

As it relates to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, of course, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is facing a situation in the world where they and al-Qaeda Central have sort of been eclipsed by the rise of the Islamic State, ISIS. And so, in this case, it seems like, at a minimum, there are ties between the Kouachi brothers, who conducted the massacre, and AQAP. It’s to AQAP’s benefit to maximize the way that that group portrays its involvement with Charlie Hebdo. But there are still very serious questions about whether or not, as AQAP says, they financed it and directed it, or that they simply provided some training to aspiring jihadists who went on then to conduct this very, very public, globally recognized massacre.

AARON MATÉ: Iona, Jeremy mentioned Saudi Arabia. That’s Yemen’s neighbor to the north. Can you expand more on their role in this current conflict? And also, do you agree that Saleh, the former leader, is playing a major role in the current unrest?

IONA CRAIG: Yes, I think it’s certainly clear that Saleh has played some role. It was clear to me, after the Houthis had taken over control of Sana’a in September, just walking around the city, talking to people, even talking to some of the men that were Houthis and other people around the city, that many of those plainclothes gunmen that you were seeing on the street, as Houthis, had actually been part of the Republican Guard before, which the Republican Guard was a unit under Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time and was commanded by his son, Ahmed Ali, so there was very much an overlap between the Houthis and what used to be the Republican Guard in the takeover of Sana’a in September and indeed in the continued control of the city since then.

Just to go back to the issue of the Saudis, the Saudis are sort of stuck in a situation now where, you know, obviously the Houthis are seen as very much as supported by Iran—how much support there is isn’t clear, but those are obviously their regional rivals. The Saudis, as Jeremy mentioned, were very much involved in bombing the Houthis. And we actually know from more recent reporting that there were cluster bombs that were fired on the Houthis during those wars, that came from America, that were sold to them by America to the Saudis. So, this slogan the Houthis have of “death to America” not only comes from a dislike of American foreign policy, but issues over that, where the Houthis have claimed that it’s American bombs that were hitting them in the past. But Saudi Arabia is now in the situation where the Houthis are effectively in charge of the government, although not physically, as I mentioned before, as Hadi is still there. So they’re reluctant to give any more economic aid to Yemen as a result, because the Houthis are in control, and they very much see them as supported by Iran. So that brings Yemen closer to the edge of economic collapse, which it’s now facing at the moment.

On the other side, you have who is taking on the Houthis, if the Saudis are looking at it from that perspective. And the only people who are physically and able—willing and able to take on the Houthis at the moment is al-Qaeda, which is also putting a lot of tribal groups in a difficult position. When the Houthis started taking further territory after Sana’a in September, there were areas where tribes didn’t want the Houthis coming into their territory, and they then found themselves, whether they liked it or not, on the same side as al-Qaeda, and possibly with the prospect of fighting alongside al-Qaeda, even if they didn’t agree with them ideologically, because they were the only ones that were standing up to the Houthis’ expansion, because the government was neither willing or able to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, I wanted to ask you about the comments of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. He’s in London right now, and he was repeating the allegations that have repeatedly been uttered on Fox—now, though, four major apologies from Fox about what they’ve been saying—that whole areas of London—of, rather, Britain, are no-go zones. Being that you are in London right now, having reported in Yemen for years, can you talk about this controversy and the response of David Cameron and others in Britain? They also made the—Fox also made the allegations about France.

IONA CRAIG: I think, really, people here obviously feel incredibly insulted by that kind of very ignorant comment, or, you know, some people have just laughed it off as slightly ridiculous, as many people see those kind of comments. But yeah, I mean, I’ve spent time in Birmingham. I’m living at the moment in South London. You know, these are communities, multicultural communities, in both cities that are—that are certainly no-go areas for anybody in that respect. So, yes, I think it’s deeply insulting to the people of Birmingham particularly. And, you know, if—

AMY GOODMAN: Birmingham is the place—

IONA CRAIG: —that’s how we can—

AMY GOODMAN: Birmingham is the place where the so-called terrorism expert Steve Emerson said on Fox is completely Muslim. It’s majority Christian, actually. And then he was forced to apologize, Iona.

IONA CRAIG: Yeah, I think probably the crucial thing is that “so-called terrorism expert.” You know, perhaps this is somebody who hasn’t spent much time from behind a—out from behind a desk for a while. Certainly, obviously, hasn’t visited Birmingham anyway.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Iona, back to Yemen, what do you see happening next?

IONA CRAIG: I think it’s really hard to predict right now. I think that the situation politically, obviously—you know, unless you have political stability, you can’t have security. You’ve got a very weak government. You’ve got a very weak president. You’ve effectively got a president now with a gun to his head from the Houthis, who are saying, “We want the draft constitution changed; otherwise, we’re going to keep control and hold onto the chief of staff.”

You’ve got al-Qaeda, who have really changed their mode of operation since the Houthis took over in September, and have started targeting civilians as a result, civilians that they claim are Houthis. But before, al-Qaeda had never deliberately and gone out of their way to kill civilians in Yemen, and that changed after the Houthis took control in September. So they attacked a Houthi gathering in October with a suicide bomber. I was actually walking into the square when that suicide bomb went off in October. And twice since the beginning of this year, they have attacked civilians, and deliberately targeting civilians. So that’s really worrying for people in Yemen, obviously, that now civilians are seen as a legitimate target by al-Qaeda. They’ve claimed responsibility for over 150 attacks across Yemen since the Houthis took control.

So, you have this issue of instability both politically and security-wise, and the economy, as I already mentioned, on the brink of collapse, where the government has run out of money to even pay the civil service and the military. So, at the moment, really, it’s all in the hands of the Houthis. It’s up to them whether they start this fighting again in order to push what—and force the government into a corner and to take heed of their demands, or whether we now see a peaceful end to all of this. But it won’t really be an end. The Houthis still have the power in their hands at the moment, and President Hadi most certainly does not.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Iona, we want to thank you for being with us. Iona Craig, joining us from London, she was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014, left Yemen last month, joining us from London.

When we come back from break, we’ll be continuing with Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, about the so-called terrorism experts and the networks they’re on. We’ll play a clip of Jeremy taking on CNN on CNN. And also, what does it mean to protect sources, no matter who or where they are? Stay with us.

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