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“Al-Qaeda is only one story”


Yemeni capital Sana’a

On 29th October, packages contain-ing bombs hidden in printer cartridges were found on cargo planes in the UK and the UAE. A week later, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the foiled attacks. The devices started their journey in Yemen, which AQAP has made its home since January 2009.

It’s not the first time the media spotlight has shone on Yemen. Over 200 foreign nationals were kidnapped by rural tribes between 1995 and 2010, although in the vast majority of cases they were released unharmed. In 2000 Al-Qaeda bombed the US Navy’s USS Cole vessel in the Yemeni port city of Aden, killing 17 sailors. But the event that seemed to secure Yemen’s status as global terrorism’s latest “it” country was the Al-Qaeda attack on the US embassy in September 2008, which killed 19 people.

“The average Yemeni doesn’t think about Al-Qaeda or American-Yemeni relations”

It’s fair to say Yemen has a bit of a public relations problem. Most people outside the Arab world, if they’ve heard of it at all, associate the country with terrorism, extremism and kidnappings. If they’re unusually enlightened, they might know about its struggles with poverty, violent insurgencies, separatist movements and endemic corruption. Following the cargo bomb plot, Yemen received its worst headlines yet. The Independent tagged the country “the new crucible of global terror” while The Mirror sensationally dubbed it “the new jihadist hotbed”. When I visited Yemen the headline that screamed louder than all the alternatives was “the most beautiful place on earth”.

On that trip I was, however, woken from my sleep by a blast of gunfire. Startled, I darted over to my hotel room window. In a town square framed by ancient teetering skyscrapers, I spied those who had shocked me from my slumber – two boys playing a local version of cowboys and Indians with cap guns. Spotting a fearful foreigner at the window they giggled and posed for a series of photos; first with cap guns blazing, and then proudly brandishing their jambiyas, the traditional daggers carried by all Yemeni males. In the city souk, kids would run up to me to offer raisins and nuts. Every time I went to a tea house a Yemeni man offered to buy my drink. I’ve never been to a friendlier country.

I found Yemen intoxicating and not just because I spent much of the week sitting on my hotel rooftop, looking out over the old town and chewing qat, the amphetamine-like stimulant the majority of Yemenis use – to the detriment of their health, wealth and their country’s future – every day.

The old city of Sana’a, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I’m by no means the only Western writer to fall for the charms of the Yemeni capital’s beguiling landscape. Jonathan Raban, visiting in the 1970s, was dazzled by the Old City’s extraordinary buildings: “They looked like the surviving entries from an ancient sandcastle competition,” he wrote in ‘Arabia’. “Every square inch of their walls had been worked and decorated with casements, arches, gables, crenellations and rough friezes of whorls, lozenges and curlicues. They leaned and toppled dizzily, straining to the limit the crude materials from which they had been built.”

Unsurprisingly the old city of Sana’a is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But today it’s under serious threat. The buildings are falling apart and there’s no money to maintain them, with available funds often diverted to the fight against Al-Qaeda. It’s not a fight many Yemenis consider a priority.

“The average Yemeni doesn’t think much about Al-Qaeda or American-Yemeni relations,” says David MacDonald, an American journalist living and working in Sana’a. Yemenis who work in tourism, he explains, have been hit hard by the significant drop in visitor numbers but for most, life isn’t affected by living in a “jihadist hotbed”. “It’s not a very politically aware community. I had lunch with a Yemeni member of parliament recently. Everybody around the world was talking about the Wikileaks revelations and he’d never heard of Wikileaks. You’d be surprised to see how little Yemenis follow the news.”

But Yemen’s international residents clearly do. MacDonald arrived in Yemen at the start of 2008, just as the security situation began to worsen. The expatriate community, he says, has dwindled significantly since: “In 2007 you would have found a couple of hundred international students in Sana’a studying Arabic. By the start of 2008, we were down to around 90 students at the language institute. By 2009 there was almost nobody at the institute. The numbers directly related to the stories coming out of Yemen about terrorism.”

The turning point, MacDonald says, was the attack on the US embassy. Many expatriates left within weeks. Western governments tightened up security and started to operate with skeleton staffs, with many employees moving into secure compounds. “It didn’t affect my life,” MacDonald says. “Touch wood, there’s never been a random attack on a foreigner in Sana’a – it’s almost always embassy personnel. Al-Qaeda doesn’t seem to be going after people like me so I’m not worrying on a day-to-day basis.”

One aspect of his life that has changed is that an increased interest in Yemen is a boost to his career. But it’s tough getting editors in other countries to become interested in Yemen’s other problems. “Al-Qaeda is a story but it’s only one story,” he says. “American journalists always want to know about Anwar al-Awlaki [the US-Yemeni operative believed to be responsible for the cargo attacks] and I think that’s a story that’s been really overplayed. It’s always about terrorism and nothing else.”

And there are stories that urgently need to be told. Yemen is the most impoverished country in the Arab world. Qat production uses up so much water that experts believe Sana’a will no longer have a water supply by 2017, the same year Yemen is expected to run out of oil, its primary source of income. The UN Development Programme estimates that half of the population survive on under $2 a day. According to the World Food Programme, a third of Yemen’s population is “food insecure”, meaning they are threatened by starvation. UNICEF has stated that 46 percent of Yemen’s children suffer from malnutrition, and the country’s population is expected to double by 2030.

“A host of economic pressures threaten to tip the country into a major food crisis”

Aside from the war Yemen’s government has waged against Al-Qaeda, there’s a second conflict raging in the north west of the country and a third in the south. In 2004 a Shia group launched an uprising against the government in Sana’a: the involvement of Iran is suspected. In 2009 this conflict escalated and there were major clashes involving the Saudi military, the kidnapping and murder of foreign tourists, and large numbers of fatalities following airstrikes. According to Oxfam, over 350,000 people have been left homeless by the fighting in north west Yemen.

In February 2010, with attacks by separatists taking place every few days, the Sana’a government declared a state of emergency in southern Yemen. Some of the insurgent groups and separatists have an ideological affinity with AQAP; many others don’t. One of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables revealed that the US has been launching airstrikes that have killed dozens of civilians in southern Yemen; airstrikes the Yemeni government has taken the credit for. Yemeni unity, only secured 20 years ago when the north and south came together, is looking very fragile.

None of these problems is eased by the corruption at all levels of authority. It’s not only a corrupt government, it’s a weak government, one that barely has any influence outside the capital. That’s why AQAP, without significant support from Yemeni people, has been able to grow in size and work quite freely from bases in rural parts of the country.

It adds up to a big problem, one many charities say is being ignored. “Donors have been slow to act,” says Richard Stanforth, Oxfam’s Regional Policy Officer. “International agencies and Yemeni organisations are fighting for funding to meet the basic needs of the population. Unless the international community acts now, a host of economic pressures threaten to tip the country into a major food crisis.  This would not only place lives in peril but could compromise the security and stability Yemenis so desperately need.”

When I was in Sana’a, at sunset each day I’d climb to my hotel rooftop and wait for the muezzin at the central mosque to recite the adhan, the call to prayer. Within seconds every loudspeaker on every minaret of every mosque in town had joined his chorus. I’d soak up the dizzying, swirling cries of “Allahu akbar” and watch the sun set behind the gingerbread towers and the mountain valley.

It’s desperately sad to think that this magnificent city is falling apart. A country where I experienced such kindness and hospitality is on the verge of catastrophe. It is in all our interests that terrorism is tackled at its source, but terrorism is a product of desperation, and Yemenis are becoming increasingly desperate. This is seemingly understood by the countries that fear Islamic extremism the most. Saudi Arabia and the United States have offered – with all sorts of strings attached – billions in aid to tackle poverty in Yemen.

There’s a sad inevitability that further terrorist plots will emanate from Yemen: let’s hope the headlines go beyond the usual obsession with Al-Qaeda. The story of Yemen on 29th October is far bigger than just terrorists and cargo bombs, and it needs to be told. Hopefully one day it will recover and be safe to visit again because it is, if you’ll excuse a little sensationalism, the most beautiful place on earth.

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