U.S. and Yemen–Strange Bedfellows in War on Terror

Despite their joint battle against terrorism, relations between the United States and Yemen reached a nadir earlier this month when a Yemeni state security court released on bail an FBI-wanted Al-Qa’ida operative.

Jabir Al-Bana, a Yemeni-U.S. terror suspect, who was sentenced to 10 years by a Yemeni court for his connection with terrorism, was released on commercial bail on March 9.

He was captured in Yemen in January 2004, tried and convicted, but managed to escape from a prison run by national intelligence in January 2006 with 23 other Al-Qa’ida detainees. Al-Bana surrendered to the authorities last December after negotiation and guaranteeing his right to appeal the initial ruling.

A criminal complaint was filed against Al-Bana, a member of the “Lackawanna Six,” in Lackawanna in New York in May 2003. Al-Bana, who worked as a salesman and taxi driver in the U.S., was alleged to have provided material support to Al-Qa’ida. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Al-Bana attended a training camp run by Al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan in 2003.

In his second public appearance in the court, Al-Bana refused to speak to the media. However, he shouted out in the courtroom: “This is an unfair verdict. It’s an American sentence. Yemen is an agent of the U.S.”

Washington and its embassy in ‘Sana expressed disappointment over Al-Bana’s release, which came as a response to American pressure on the Yemeni government to extradite Jamal Al-Badawi, a Yemeni national convicted and sentenced to death for plotting and taking part in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.

Al-Badawi also escaped with Al-Bana and other Al-Qa’ida members in 2006 but surrendered to the authorities in October 2007. He pledged allegiance to the Yemeni laws and constitution, and was put under effective house arrest.

The U.S., which lost 17 sailors in the attack on the Cole, criticized the decision not to send Al-Badawi back to jail. A spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council described Yemen’s move as “deeply disappointing… This action is inconsistent with a deepening of our bilateral counter-terrorism co-operation. We have communicated our displeasure to Yemeni officials.”

A high-profile official at the Yemeni Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation also criticized his government for taking such action.

“This [action] will cost Yemen a lot. We lost another opportunity with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. It is unfortunate, but we don’t lose hope and wish development aid will not be associated with security.”

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board of Directors reinstated the eligibility of Yemen for participation in MCC’s Threshold Program in February 2007. Since its suspension in 2005, Yemen has undertaken a series of impressive reforms that enabled it to apply for MCC funding. “The Government of Yemen has made a number of important reform commitments,” a statement by the corporation said then.

Yemen was eligible for Threshold Program assistance in 2004, but its eligibility was suspended by the MCC board in November 2005 following a consistent pattern of deterioration in Yemen’s policy performance on the selection criteria. As Yemen was ready to apply for a Threshold Program Agreement with an assistance package of $20.8 million, the Al-Badawi crisis put the whole program on hold.

Though Yemen later denied Al-Badawi’s release, asserting he was in custody, critics slammed Yemen severely for taking that action. The U.S. officially requested Al-Badawi’s extradition. Media reports in local Yemeni papers described the turmoil in Yemeni-American relations as the toughest since 2000 when cooperation first started. Local columnist Muhammad Al-Qadhi said there was a clear tension in the Yemeni-American relations.

“It shows that there’s a serious problem,” Al-Qadhi said. “It is boiling.

“Yemen wanted to send a message to the U.S. showing off its capabilities in taking a decision individually in a bi-laterally coordinated issue. Despite the fact that the Yemeni government knows very well that Al-Bana is wanted by the U.S., its response to the American pressure to extradite Al-Badawi was badly handled.”

“It is a stupid mistake,” Al-Qadhi continued. “Is Yemen a super power to challenge the U.S.? Maybe it behaved with the U.S. in this matter as it behaves with a tribal sheikh.”

An official Yemeni source said his country had made a remarkable achievement through negotiating with and rehabilitating fugitive Al-Qa’ida leaders and their militants.

“Our strategy is to fight terrorism,” said Yemen’s Interior Minister Rashad Al-‘Alimi in response to the U.S. reaction. “However, we need a space to use different tactics. Our friends should appreciate this.”

Most officials contacted were reluctant to comment due to the sensitivity of the issue. An official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, however, said this was an election year in the U.S. and Republicans were playing the terrorism card to the full.

American diplomats in ‘Sana and Yemenis in Washington refrained from commenting to The Media Line. However, a Yemeni diplomat in DC said on condition of anonymity that any turbulence between ‘Sana and Washington would only serve the extremists.

“We are all in the same boat,” he said.

The government of Yemen is in a difficult place and would like to get out of the dark tunnel as soon as it can. Meanwhile, the U.S. is insistent that Al-Badawi, who is said to have American blood on his hands, be extradited. Requests have been turned down several times by Yemeni officials as they violate its constitution.

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