The clerics' promise to wage jihad if the US boosts its military presence was an indirect message from President Saleh's government, said a senior Yemeni analyst. The clerics also noted positively a US effort to dampen fears of deeper military intervention.
Prominent Islamist clerics in Yemen warned on Thursday that they would lead a jihad against any foreign forces that occupied their impoverished Arabian Peninsula nation to fight Al Qaeda militants there.
Sending an explicit message to the US that it should not expand its already growing military and intelligence cooperation with Yemen to include ground forces, 158 clerics signed a statement to protest “dangerous developments and intrigues and conspiracies against the country.”
The clerics “absolutely reject” any foreign intervention, the establishment of foreign military bases on land or off the Yemeni coast, and the “killing of innocents” – a reference to the death of civilians in two US-backed air strikes against alleged Al Qaeda targets in December.
“After all this,” the statement said, “if there is any insistence from any foreign party or aggression or invasion against the country … then Islam considers jihad a duty to repel the aggression” – a point that drew shouts of “God is great!” from the clerics when it was read out loud in a Sanaa mosque.
“It is not just a popular message [to the US], but a message from the government in an indirect way,” says Nasser Yehia, head of the Yemen Center for Strategic Studies in Sanaa. "I'm sure the Yemeni government had the same idea, but is afraid to state it. So it encourages popular groups to state it."
“If US support is restricted as now, then the government will not be afraid. Intelligence support is secret, for example, so won’t provoke any problem,” adds Mr. Yehia, who says anything more would be problematic. “I believe the West shouldn’t think about a big intervention, which would create a big problem. Only Iran and Al Qaeda would benefit from military intervention in Yemen.”
Since the Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen claimed responsibility for the plot by the Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Mutallab to blow up a US aircraft on Christmas Day, with explosives sewn into his underwear, top American officials have stated that Islamic militants in Yemen are a global threat and one of their top priorities.
While quiet American military and intelligence help and public declarations of support have surged in the past three weeks, President Barack Obama and his top commanders have also in recent days sought to dampen public fear of a much deeper military operation.
The clerics acknowledged that, in the course of the two weeks they held deliberations, the White House and Pentagon had all but ruled out a broad troop deployment.The statement noted that clerics “appreciate this attitude of the US administration and demand that it abide by this policy.”
Clerics were confident they had done their “duty” to inform Yemenis. As they left the mosque, they were handed sticky-backed copies of the statement for posting.
“This shows the West that the people of Yemen are wise, and deal with all issues with logic and reason,” says Sheikh Ahmad Suleiman Ahyaf, head of the Islamic Studies Center in Sanaa, speaking after the meeting. “They want to show they can defend themselves. People reject any intervention.”
“This shows the Yemen government and people can resolve all their problems without the Americans,” said Sheikh Morad al-Qadasi, who like most clerics at the meeting wore a traditional curved dagger in his belt. “The statement supports the government, and encourages it to solve all the problems. We believe that Al Qaeda is not as huge as imagined in the media.
Clerics hold powerful sway in Yemen’s tribal society. Their statement concluded with calls to be close to God. There were these words from the Koran: “Any disaster that befalls you is by your own hand.”
And there was a parable from the Koran, which told the fate of a village that was at first safe and secure, and enjoyed good living for a time. “But because it denied the blessings of God, [God] made it taste both hunger and fear.”
Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government has been weakened by a war against Houthi rebels in the north – which has absorbed half of Yemen’s military force – and secessionist moves in the south. In addition, it faces rampant corruption, one of the world’s most severe water shortages, and fast-dwindling oil reserves.
Al Qaeda is just one more concern, albeit one that has increasingly targeted the regime in the past 18 months. An estimated 200 to 300 militants affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a 2009 merger between the Yemeni and Saudi offshoots of Al Qaeda, are believed to be active in Yemen.
AQAP has become a key focus in Washington, and Yemeni security forces have stepped up attacks against Al Qaeda in recent months, making claims of numerous killings and arrests, though President Saleh – whose government has long had some ties to militants – last weekend called for dialogue with Al Qaeda.
“Yemen says it is fighting Al Qaeda, but that does not only mean militarily,” says Yehia, from the strategic studies center. “Last year, Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai, and even some people in the US, said there should be dialogue with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. That didn’t mean they were not serious in fighting them.”
“Security forces are launching a wide campaign against Al Qaeda elements, and we have an open war with them,” a security official told Reuters. It reported that the Yemen Defense Ministry’s online newspaper “September 26” quoted a security source saying the war was on against Al Qaeda militants “whenever or wherever we find those elements.”