Yemen outlaws motorcycles in governorate under siege

A popular pastime is not so easy anymore as authorities fear al-Qaida assassins on wheels.

Yemen Road Blocks 311 (photo credit: AP)
Yemen Road Blocks 311
(photo credit: AP)
The open road. The wind blowing through your hair. The sun sets over the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Abyan Delta -- Yemen’s most fertile valley. The Harley revs as you cruise down the coastal plain along the Aden Mukalla highway, past cotton and tobacco fields, orchards, fruit farms, clay houses, hot springs, a fish-canning factory and the Khanfar Mountain.
Not anymore.
RELATED:Mafia war rages in Netanya, as bikers shoot at mob bossAre Saudi dissidents preparing to overthrow the king?Authorities in Yemen’s Abyan Governorate, a growing stronghold for Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, have banned motorcycles from cities in the region’s urban centers.
"Using motorbikes in terrorist operations to assassinate intelligence officers and security personnel have been massively mounted over the past nine months in the province," San'a-based Yemeni Interior Ministry official told the Xinhua news agency.
The news, first reported in the pan-Arab London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, follows a series of recent assassinations by Al-Qa’ida militants throughout Abyan and will affect some 5,000 two-wheeled vehicles, according to local media. Militants on motorcycles have killed at least 30 Yemeni soldiers, intelligence officers and security personnel over the last three months alone, using the bikes to make a quick escape.
“Motorcycles are typically used by terrorists and insurgents to deliver weapons directly if its a suicide attack or to make a quick getaway,” Dr Theodore Karasik, Director for Research and Development at the Institute for Near East Gulf Military Analysis told The Media Line. “The banning of motorcycles is indicative of how the government, with help from US officers, is trying to cut down on the movements of Al-Qa’ida members and tribal members who support them.”
Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Musa Qallab, the former program manager of Gulf Defense Issues at the Gulf Research Center, said motorcycles are the ideal tool for a terrorist attack.
“They are easy to rent, easy to buy and easy to use,” he told The Media Line. “So many people drive motorcycles so it’s easy to hide, easy to cheat and more importantly very easy to escape from the scene through narrow passages. It’s very hard to stop them in a crowded area full of traffic.”
Dr Stephen Steinbeiser, resident director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in the Yemeni capital Sana, said the move was long overdo.
“Motorcycles and scooters are easy to maneuver and to get around roadblocks, so I’m surprised they didn’t think of this earlier,” he told The Media Line. “I don’t think its a sign of desperation, I see it as a sign that the government is taking this seriously, doing anything it can to protect themselves, and is taking practical and creative ways to change the way they do business and tackle a rising threat.”
Yemeni authorities say Abyan has become a stronghold for Al-Qa’ida, and earlier this month, Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) threatened to assassinate 55 specific top security officers in Abyan.
Home to almost 24 million people, Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the Middle East and the government has long had a mutually beneficial relationship with radical Islamist groups, particularly during the country's civil war when the northern Yemen army used radical Islamists to fight against forces in the south.
After 9/11 the Yemeni government became more hesitant of cooperation with Al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups and last year, following the merger of Al-Qa’ida in Yemen with their Saudi counterparts to form Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, the government launched a number of military operations against AQAP strongholds but has not had the resources to develop a forceful campaign against the group.
Geopolitical analysts warn that with a weak central government, Yemen has become the global radical Islamists' destination of choice, providing an ideal staging ground for future terror attacks on Western interests in the Gulf, the Red Sea gateway to the Suez Canal, and beyond.
Ever since the Yemen-based Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, Western eyes have turned to Yemen.
The US has already been conducting covert strikes on Al-Qa’ida targets in Yemen and has pledged to double military assistance to the embattled government.
But while the Yemeni government has shown some concern over Al-Qa’ida’s presence in the country, this is a relatively recent development seen by many as a ploy to please the U.S.
Beyond Al-Qa’ida’s growing presence, Yemen has a smorgasbord of problems: from a serious impending water crises and an economy overly dependent on a dying oil sector; to Somali pirates; a secessionist movement in the south; and a Houthi rebellion in the north. With around two-thirds of Yemen under the control of separatist groups, rebels or local tribes, the Yemeni government is much more concerned with consolidating its power than with fighting the growing band of radical Islamists in the Yemeni mountains.