America may have overlooked a sleeper in Yemen

Has anyone bothered to examine General Al-Ahmar, who defected from the Saleh camp, and question whether his ties to al-Qaida are still intact?

Soldiers at demonstration in Yemen 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soldiers at demonstration in Yemen 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since unrest began flooding through the Middle East, Western assessments have been colored by hopes and expectations as much as by the events. Media and governments alike have waxed neareuphoric in bestowing righteousness on those who break with the incumbent rulers. While great attention is paid to past infamies, little understanding of possible successor regimes has been offered.
Regarding Egypt, for instance, a military council was stipulated to hold only the purest of motives, although no proof was forthcoming. Even the denouncement by Mohammed ElBaradei (the opposition leader with arguably the most prominent international profile) of the council’s proposed constitutional changes as a “dictator’s constitution” failed to alter the tone of coverage – at least until the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the clear winner in that referendum.
Yemen, as a case-in-point, is frightening. The formula there for both media and diplomacy has been “anti-Saleh good” and “pro-Saleh bad,” leaving no room for further due diligence. So when General Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar defected from the Saleh camp it was by definition a good thing. But has anyone bothered to examine Al-Ahmar’s past performances, and question whether his ties to al-Qa’ida are still intact? Could he be a front man for the international terrorist organization?
Although the US government professes the war against terror to be a priority in the Middle East, apparently no one is paying attention to this very issue.
WHAT MANY fail to realize about this general is that his defection may not be totally related to the call for change advocated by protesters in the streets. Al-Ahmar has been known to be strongly affiliated with al-Qa’ida. According to a 2005 cable by the American ambassador to Yemen, Thomas Krajeski, revealed by Wikileaks, Al-Ahmar appears to have amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products. He is what we call in the Arab world a “war prince”– someone who benefits from times of conflict.
Signs backing this analysis are already showing in the southern governorate of Abyan, where the US attacked an al-Qa’ida training camp in 2009. The camp was allegedly run by Al-Ahmar, yet this did not seem to resonate with either US thinkers or Yemeni authorities.
“It is all about power struggle,” cry out youth activists in Change Square as they complain of losing faith in all political parties – both inside and outside the country.
In fact, the United States was not spared protesters’ angst, as bullet casings and other armament were displayed on television with a sign reading, “Made in USA” and accompanied by shouts of “the US is killing us!”
So what is America’s involvement in Yemen? Is the longstanding commitment to support President Saleh in the war against terrorism still operative? If so, is Saleh’s friendship and protection of Yemeni leader Abdulmajid Al-Zindani – frequently on the “Most Wanted al-Qa’ida” list – problematic? Or must Saleh answer for Al-Ahmar’s use of jihadis to fight Shi’ite rebels linked to Iran between 2004 and 2008?
There is more to Yemen than is being reported or discussed, in the media and behind closed doors whether in Washington or Sana’a. The US needs to stay focused and understand the dynamics of Yemeni politics in order to really address the issue of terrorism. As events continue to unfold, who is on whose team today seems to be of minimal concern. But the street’s rejection of such arbitrariness is becoming louder and less ambiguous than the voices of politicians.
It’s that voice that needs to be heard.
Felice Friedson is president and CEO of The Media Line Ltd, an American news agency specializing in coverage of the Middle East. Nadia Al-Sakkaf is the editor of The Yemen Times since 2005, a Yemeni human rights activist and strong promoter of women empowerment and civil society development. Together, Friedson and Al-Sakkaf are behind Women of Mideast Media, an effort to support, train and empower women for careers in media in the Middle East. Friedson can be reached at felice–, Al-Sakkaf at