Daniel Martin Varisco: Grinding a Greater Axis of Evil





[Daniel Martin Varisco is Chair, Anthropology Department at Hofstra University.]

Terrorism takes a toll far beyond the lives lost everyday, even when a plot is thwarted. On Christmas day a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab attempted to set himself off as a human bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. On the surface he hardly fit the profile of a crazed militant fresh out of a training camp in the hills of Pakistan. His father was a recently retired chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and he is an engineering student at University College London. But it now seems that his father was so concerned about his son’s politics that he warned the U.S. embassy about him just a month ago. Initial reports indicate that the explosives were said by Mutallab to be provided by al-Qaeda in Yemen. Based on this claim certain U.S. politicians, most notably Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, have called for Yemen to be added to the growing terrorist axis of evil. “So I leave you with this thought that somebody in our government said to me in the Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Iraq was yesterday’s war. Afghanistan is today’s war. If we don’t act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow’s war. That’s the danger we face.” Lieberman told Fox News.

Lieberman is actually calling for Yemen to become today’s war, but the key to his thinking is best summed in another line from the same interview: “We’ve got to constantly be thinking like the terrorists here.” Well, Joe, this is the problem. You are thinking like the terrorists when you suggest going into a country you know nothing about and dropping bombs. Unfortunately, it appears we have already started doing that. The Yemeni government’s attacks last week on a suspected al-Qaeda hideout in Abyan are reported to have left as many as 82 civilians killed and more than 213 injured, according to local estimates. The government claimed that it had eliminated at least 34 al-Qaeda fighters. President Obama even sent a message of congratulation to President Salih for his success in fighting terrorism. So as far as the media is concerned, whether the go-get-’em mantra of Fox News or we-must-be-the-mainstream New York Times, a preemptive propaganda strike has already been made. “With fears also growing of a resurgent Islamist extremism in nearby Somalia and East Africa, administration officials and American lawmakers said Yemen could become Al Qaeda’s next operational and training hub, rivaling the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where the organization’s top leaders operate,” reports the latter.


“Locals covering the bodies of civilians whose death was war causality in the government’s raid on Al-Qaeda camp in Al-Mhfad district in Abyan governorate south of Yemen.” Photo from UAE Al-Bayan newspaper by Mohammed Al-Ghubari

So is Yemen the new terrorist haven, the latest forwarding address for the international conspiracy branded al-Qaeda? Let’s take a reality check. While Americans have been fed a steady diet, much with distorted fatuous reporting and fearmongering, about Iraq and Afghanistan, most people do not have a clue about Yemen, nor even where it is located on a map. It is a lot easier to paint and tarnish a clean slate the way you want it to look, since there are no annoying ground facts to check the tendency to draw enemies lurking behind every bush. The internal strife in Yemen has little to do with the international terror network we are supposedly ridding the world of in Iraq and Afghanistan, unless we make the Yemenis believe that should be the issue. The problem is a struggling economy of an over-populated country precariously united a little less than two decades ago. This misunderstanding is demonstrated in the caption provided to the New York Times article noted above. The implication is a bunch of angry terrorism sympathizers no doubt shouting “Death to America.” In reality, these protests are part of a much wider expression of frustration in the former South Yemen over the hegemonic intrusion of the north. Their anger is at their own government, one which the United States is encouraging to further deny rights to its citizens. If you want to understand why there are protests, which have been ongoing, look at the corruption, high-handed violations of human rights and outright poverty in a part of Yemen that had once seemed prosperous under a socialist regime.

Another point is lost in the frenzy of blame. As noted in the same New York Times article, the surge of al-Qaeda in Yemen is not just a home-grown phenomenon but due to individuals who have fled from Saudi Arabia. While Yemen is not the wild no-man’s land of northern Pakistan, it is easier to find a hiding place or blend in than it would be in Saudi territory. The Yemeni government, under a President now in power over three decades, has never controlled the entire country, but it has managed to keep a relative peace with local tribes. This de facto semi federation political context has recently come unglued with the rebellion in the north around a firebrand named al-Houthi. But this began as a local battle against government policy and not a training camp for anti-American or pro-Iranian sympathizers. The pressure by our government on the Yemenis to get the bad guys allows the government to crack down on its political opponents. In the process it is likely that sympathy for al-Qaeda will take root. Sentiments such as those expressed by Senator Lieberman do more for recruiting terrorists than any online firebrand sermons. Instead of grinding out raw meat for an ever expanding axis of evil, the best way to mitigate terrorism is, contrary to the advice of Lieberman, to stop acting like terrorists. At this point anyone who has any kind of grievance can jump on the al-Qaeda bandwagon because we have made a loose knit ideal into an icon. The people of Yemen are not the enemy, but we can certainly make them want to be our enemies.

I speak not simply as a talking head, but from personal experience. In 1978 I arrived in Yemen for ethnographic research, spending over a year in a rural valley where all the men were armed. This was tribal Yemen, where few people trusted the weak central government, but who pulled together as a community to build local roads, schools and even health clinics. Not once did I ever feel threatened because a code of honor was still in force and I was a guest, not a threat to anyone there. At that time the United States was admired as a God-fearing country, unlike the communists on the other side of the warming Cold War. During the 1980s I returned numerous times to Yemen as a development consultant and saw Yemeni professionals, many newly returned from advanced degrees in the United States, eager to improve living conditions in their poor country. In 2005 I sat in a diwan with several men I had known on a day-to-day basis over 25 years earlier. They were shocked at the U.S. invasion of Iraq and asked me what I thought of it. I noted that I personally did not think the war was right and thought it would only bring more problems. At one point a friend turned to me and said, “When you first came here we liked America because it stood for something we did not have, now we know your country is as corrupt as our own.”



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