Yemen’s Useful Tyranny – The Forgotten History of Britain’s ‘Dirty War’: Part 1

All revolutions are not equal. While Libya is deemed worthy of the West’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ – express delivery by B-2 bomber, F-15 fighter and cruise missile – protesters elsewhere have been denied such Western largesse. In response to the atrocities in Yemen, for example, Obama has sent mere words. The reason, as one astute commentator notes, is that Yemen’s dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh is a ‘useful tyrant’

Anti-government protests began in Yemen in mid-January, inspired by the success of Tunisia’s grassroots movement in deposing the autocratic President Ben Ali. On March 18, Yemeni forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in the capital Sana’a, killing 52 people and wounding over 350. It is estimated that well over one hundred people have been killed in protests to date. As Amy Goodman observes, at the time this toll likely rivalled the number killed in Libyan protests against Gaddafi. She adds:

‘But the U.S. response has been markedly different. On Monday [March 21], the Obama administration called the recent violence “unacceptable” but announced no tangible steps to pressure Saleh’s government.’ (Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!,  ‘Jeremy Scahill: As Mass Uprising Threatens the Saleh Regime, a Look at the Covert U.S. War in Yemen’, March 22, 2011)

Saleh’s forces are using US military equipment to attack and kill Yemeni protesters. In the past five years, the United States has provided more than $300 million in military and security aid to the tyranny and used the country as a proxy for fighting its ‘War on Terror’.

Last Sunday, a huge accidental explosion at an ammunition plant in southern Yemen killed around 150 people. The media echoed Yemeni government claims that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had raided the plant, stealing carloads of weaponry. Quoting anonymous ‘analysts’, the BBC reported that the group was ‘taking advantage of instability caused by the spate of anti-government protests.’ (‘Yemeni arms factory blast toll rises amid protests’, BBC News online, March 30, 2011, last updated at 00:13)

The BBC pushed the same focus:

‘The Yemeni government has been a key US ally in the region, conducting numerous joint anti-terror raids. Despite this, militancy has continued to flourish.’

By definition, the US is on the side that opposes ‘militancy’ and terror, rather than being a chief architect and perpetrator of both.

A Guardian report also uncritically boosted the al-Qaida angle, citing US defence secretary Robert Gates:

‘… the most active, and at this point perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaida, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, operates out of Yemen. And we have had a lot of counterterrorism co-operation from President Saleh and Yemeni security services.’ (Tom Finn, ‘Yemen munitions factory explosion leaves over 120 dead’,, March 28, 2011, 19.28 BST)

Once again, the US engages in counterterrorism, never terrorism.

If Saleh falls, US influence over Yemeni policy and its ‘counterterror’ operations could be jeopardised. Thomas Krajeski, a former American ambassador to Yemen, said:

‘Many in the US government hope he [Saleh] survives, because no one knows what will come next.’ (Iona Craig, ‘Tanks sent to crush Yemen protests’, Sunday Times, March 20, 2011).

The Sunday Times notes that ‘America seems to have no contingency plan for what might happen if Saleh is replaced.’

Thus, the threat represented by ‘Islamic terrorists’ is the dominant note in the corporate media’s echo chamber for US ‘concerns’ about Yemen.

In similar vein, a Daily Telegraph report observes that ‘Saleh’s support in the fight against Islamic terrorists is considered vital by London and Washington.’ (Damien McElroy, ‘Protesters urge Yemen leader to go’, Daily Telegraph, January 28, 2011)

A Guardian editorial describes Yemen as ‘where the west conscripted Saleh in its fight against al-Qaida.’ (‘Arab revolution: Unstoppable force’, March 23, 1011)

In The Times, Iona Craig relayed the ‘feeling in Riyadh’, faithfully passing on the thoughts of General Manour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry:

‘Our main concern is al-Qaeda and that is not going to change whatever happens in Yemen.’ (Iona Craig, ‘Saleh appeals to Saudi neighbours for help as rebellion gathers pace’, The Times, March 23, 2011)

And the ‘chief concern’ of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is to avoid ‘diversion of attention’ from opposing al-Qa’ida. (Jeb Boone, ‘Defiant Yemen President warns “mutinous” military of long, bloody civil war’, The Independent, March 23, 2011)

In an interview on Democracy Now!, independent journalist Jeremy Scahill provided a more accurate perspective, outlining some of the relevant background so lacking in corporate news reporting on Yemen:

‘[O]ne of the first things [Saleh] did after 9/11 was make arrangements to come to Washington, and he met with President Bush, with the CIA Director George Tenet, with Dick Cheney, with the head of the FBI. And he basically said to the Bush administration, “We’re going to give you full access to Yemen’s territories to conduct counterterrorist operations.” And, you know, they essentially hatched a plot where Yemen would extract funding for its own military out of the Bush administration in return for the Bush administration being able to conduct counterterrorist operations inside of Yemen, including the killing of Yemeni citizens.’(Scahill, quoted in Goodman, op. cit.)

In November 2002, the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command launched a drone strike in the Ma’rib region of Yemen, killing six people. Scahill notes that this was ‘the first strike outside of the battlefield of Afghanistan and Iraq that we know of, and it really set the doctrine in play that the world is a battlefield.’

The Obama administration has since ‘escalated the covert war inside of Yemen and has dramatically increased the funding to Yemen’s military, particularly to its elite counterterrorism unit, which is trained by U.S. Special Operations Forces.’

US ‘assistance’ for Yemen is supposed to be used to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – a dual Saudi and Yemeni organisation , involving no more than 300 members (Patrick Cockburn, ‘A crucial US ally against Middle East terrorism or a safe haven for al-Qa’ida?’, Independent, March 23, 2011). Their goal is to topple both Saleh’s regime and the kingdom of Al Saud in Saudi Arabia. But the Yemeni government has used US military aid, including ‘helicopters that have been laundered through Saudi Arabia but are really from the U.S.’, observes Scahill, to fight insurrections against Saleh’s regime from two fronts: the revolt by the Houthi Shiite population in the north of Yemen, and also the southern secessionist movement that has been trying to overthrow his government for a number of years.

The US has ‘been almost entirely silent in the face of Saleh’s forces gunning down their own citizens’. Indeed, the US has its own ground forces in Yemen ‘that have been directly killing people in unilateral operations’. Scahill continues:

‘They’ve done air strikes inside of Yemen. They’ve trained Yemeni forces. The U.S. has spent a lot of money militarily in Yemen, and very little money, by comparison, building up Yemen’s civilian infrastructure. So, you could say that U.S. policy has played a central role in the last decade of destabilization in Yemen and has also undermined the authority of their own leader that they back by killing civilians in air strikes.’

As with all effective propaganda throughout the ages, the ideological line of ‘opposing al-Qaida’ has an element of truth to it. But the bigger, more accurate picture is the longstanding strategy of maintaining US control in the oil-rich Middle East. In 1945, US State Department officials described Saudi Arabian energy resources as ‘a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history’, and the Gulf Region was considered ‘probably the richest economic prize in the world in the field of foreign investment.’ (Cited in Noam Chomsky, ‘Hegemony or Survival’, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p. 150). Yemen has long been an important foothold in this region, as we will see (Part 2).


US-Yemeni Collusion In Death And Propaganda

Last December, US embassy cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that Yemen and the United States had colluded in attacks on ‘Al-Qaida terrorist targets’ and had agreed to deceive the public by claiming that US strikes were actually Yemeni strikes. Saleh told Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, in September 2009: ‘I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible.’ (‘US embassy cables: Bomb al-Qaida where you want, Yemen tells US, but don’t blame us if they strike again’,, December 3, 2010, 21.29 GMT)

So while Saleh’s government publicly stated that its own forces were responsible for ‘counterterror’ operations, the leaked cables detailed a secret deal to allow the US to carry out cruise missile attacks on targets. The first strike in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians along with ‘wanted jihadis.’

One cable recorded that ‘Yemen insisted it must “maintain the status quo” regarding the official denial of US involvement.’ In a meeting with General David Petraeus, then head of U.S. central command, Saleh admitted lying to his population about the strikes:

‘We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.’

The deputy prime minister, Rashad al-Alimi, who was also at the meeting, joked he had just ‘lied’ by telling the Yemeni parliament that bombs used against ‘al-Qaida strongholds’ were American-made but deployed by Yemen. (Robert Booth and Ian Black, ‘WikiLeaks cables: Yemen offered US “open door” to attack al-Qaida on its soil’,, December 3, 2010, 21.30 GMT)

Petraeus told Saleh he had requested $150m (£95m) in security assistance for Yemen for 2010, a major increase over the 2009 amount of $67m. Later in 2010, discussions were held to boost US funds to Yemen to more than $1bn.

But Yemen was under the US thumb long before 9/11. In the run-up to the first US-led Gulf War in 1991, votes of the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council were critical. John Pilger reported:

‘Minutes after Yemen voted against the resolution to attack Iraq, a senior American diplomat told the Yemeni ambassador: “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast.” Within three days, a US aid programme of $70m to one of the world’s poorest countries was stopped. Yemen suddenly had problems with the World Bank and the IMF; and 800,000 Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia.’ (John Pilger, ‘How the Bushes bribe the world’, New Statesman, September 23, 2002)

Skip forward to 2003 and we see that UN resolution 1441, used by the Bush administration to prepare the way for war, was rammed through the Security Council by senior US officials whose job was ‘to urge leaders to vote with the United States on Iraq or risk “paying a heavy price”.’ (Dafna Linzer, Associated Press, Boston Globe, February 24, 2003). No doubt the fate of Yemen following its vote against the 1991 Gulf War was on everyone’s minds.

Noam Chomsky makes the crucial point:

‘The support [for the Iraq war] is in fact submission; signers understood what the alternative would be. In systems of law that are intended to be taken seriously, coerced acquiescence is invalid. In international affairs, however, it is honoured as diplomacy.’ (Noam Chomsky, op. cit., p.36)

Although UK newspapers did report the WikiLeaked revelations of Yemeni-US deception, there has been very little joining of the dots in recent reporting on Yemen. But this is standard for corporate media performance. There have been fleeting references to Yemen’s poverty – the poorest country in the Middle East, with 40 per cent trying to get by on less than $2 a day – and its high levels of unemployment (40 per cent) and illiteracy (50 per cent). But there has been next to nothing about the region’s exploitation over many decades by Western states and corporations. In particular, Britain’s role in conducting a covert war in the 1960s to protect ‘our national interests’ – a key factor in understanding Yemen’s current state of poverty and instability – has been airbrushed out as irrelevant history (as we will see in Part 2.)