In my discussions of Somali piracy, I have not infrequently mentioned that the problem is not a Somali problem alone. My very first post on modern piracy noted that both Somalis and Yemenis were taken from the now-famous M/V Quest, and in my post on the "Jeffersonian past" I proposed that Yemen may become a new center of pirate activity. The map of pirate attacks up to 2010 clearly shows a high concentration of reported incidents immediately off of Yemen. The cultures and governments of Yemen and Somalia have had a long, close relationship; Yemen has unconditionally accepted Somali refugees. But does this really mean that Yemen plays or could play the same role as Somalia as a pirate haven? I decided to look closer at history and recent events.
|Sana'a, capitol of Yemen|
It is obvious that Yemen, as a country, is in trouble. It is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the Arab world, in spite of having been critical to maritime history for millennia. Well over half of the people of Yemen are unemployed. Yemen also has one of the world's highest birth rates, nearly 700,000 per year. The economy is collapsing, especially as the country's oil reserves will be depleted in the very near foreseeable future. Part of Yemen's instability, in fact, stems from its geographical importance. The port of Aden--for which the adjoining Gulf is named--was colonized by the Portuguese, the Ottomans, and finally by the British. The Brits held on tightly to Aden as it was equidistant from other key British locations: the Suez Canal, Bombay, and Zanzibar. In 1962, North Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, but South Yemen remained with Britain. When the British finally let go of Aden in the 1960's, the transition to independence was marred by riots and bombings. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was declared in 1970, and until 1990 South Yemen was an independent Communist state. There has been a movement to regain independence for South Yemen since that time; a civil war for independence was quashed in 1994, but a new insurgency arose in 2007. A civil war has also been fought in the north since 2004 against Shiite Houthi rebels, a conflict that has crossed over into Saudi Arabia. Yemen is a country plagued by poverty, torn by war, and short on hope.
2011: Over a dozen Arab nations rose up against their oppressors in what has come to be collectively known as "Arab Spring." In Tunisia, an increasingly violent series of street protests led to the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, after 18 days of protest that involved tens of thousands, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. In Libya, a rebellion against Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi, who has held dictatorial power for over forty years, has resulted in an ongoing civil war in which the United States, among many others, has a strong stake.
|Protesters crowd the streets of Sana'a on January 27th.|
In Yemen, the man to be overthrown is President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power since Yemen reunified and was President of North Yemen for twelve years before that. This is a man who has won by "partly free" elections and whose government is rife with corruption. This is a man who fully backed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. This is a man who has at the very least allowed arbitrary arrests, torture, and executions without trial. The uprising against him began in January 2011 in the capital of Sana'a. In February protests spread to other urban centers, including Aden. Violence naturally ensued. On March 18th, protesters were fired upon, and 52 died. In late May, Saleh refused to sign a transition agreement, and the street fighting became so heavy that many feared total civil war. On June 3rd, a rocket attack on the presidential palace left several dead, and a severely wounded Saleh was rushed to the Saudi capitol of Riyadh. As of today, Saleh's vice president is acting leader, but Saleh has not yet given up. Hundreds of thousands continue to call for his fall and trial.
Now you may be asking yourself, how did Blue Lou Logan get so caught up in following current events, and what in the Gorram 'verse does this have to do with piracy?
|Members of al-Qaida in Yemen|
Somalia has become the center for modern piracy for one primary reason: There is no government to prevent it. Yemen is not yet at that point, but the potential is there. Not only has the government nearly been overthrown, but also the insurrection itself is torn by internal divisions--northern rebels, southern secessionists, angry youth calling for human rights, and, last but hardly least, the legendary Sith Lords of our era, al-Qaida. This terrorist connection is not imaginary, although it may be exaggerated. Al-Qaida has a very real history in Yemen, and especially in Aden. In 1992, al-Qaida bombed the Gold Mohur Hotel. In 2000, an attack on the USS Cole occurred in Aden as well. Days ago, on June 22nd, al-Qaida militants escaped from a prison in South Yemen. As quoted in the Huffington Post, former head of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff called this "a harbinger of what is to come if Yemen spins out of control." The United States, naturally, considers al-Qaida the most dangerous aspect of the situation in Yemen. According to an article for the Associated Press, there are increased numbers of CIA agents in Yemen, and plans are moving ahead to establish a secret base from which armed drones will fly to hunt insurgents. Some commentators wisely point out that focusing too much on the United States' favorite bad guys will not solve the larger problem of Yemen's instability. In a feature on NPR (which, when I heard it, kicked me in the pants to get this blog written), Sheila Carapico of the American University in Cairo stated, "We have a Saudi policy, and we have an al-Qaida policy. We don't really have a Yemen policy....Most Yemenis have no patience with al-Qaida or with the jihadist fringe. But there is a way of wielding too much American force which can create sympathy where none existed before." I am here neither to take a stance on American policy nor to argue the threat of al-Qaida. The combined situation, however, has created what Paul J. Sullivan of Georgetown University has called a "large power vacuum (that) has developed out of the recent violence and internal warfare." In short, no one is truly in control of Yemen, and chaos could occur. That starts to resemble Somalia. That's why Yemen could become the next pirate haven.
|The Yemeni town of Zinjibar|
Has it already? Not from the available evidence. The map indicates attacks around Yemen, not attacks from Yemen. Searching online, the only citation I found for Yemeni pirate ports was that fool Fox News article about Senator Kirk and his "Jeffersonian" nonsense. In that article, "piracy expert" J. Peter Pham states that "the pirates already operate out of several Yemeni ports, the motherships go there to be refueled, to resupply and then head out because they know that the Somali coasts are being watched." The problem with this statement is the source. I checked out Dr. Pham, and, according to SourceWatch, his Ph.D. is in theology, he has no actual formal training in African affairs, and his only experience before getting into the think tank business was as a diplomat for the Vatican. Is the one reference to Yemeni pirate ports simply to be dismissed? An interesting statement comes from the aforementioned Associated Press article and Daniel Benjamin, Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department: "We know that militants have shaken pirates down. And if that results in money being in terrorist pockets, that's bad news....If you ask most of the pirates right now, they would consider the terrorists to be parasites who are not helping them in a constructive way." In other words, the terrorists and the pirates are not friends--and definitely not the same people--and this antagonism, it seems to me, might prevent pirates from landing in Yemen. Indeed, Islamic militants are already staking their claim on the coast: The ancient coastal town of Zinjibar was taken by force in late May and remains under militant control. This does not mean that other harbors aren't around, especially as Yemen has over 200 islands, but Yemen might not be the kind of pirate haven Somalia has been so far.
To say things in Yemen are volatile is an understatement. The world is watching to see what happens next. Will Saleh return to the country or step down? If he attempts to maintain his position, will the Yemeni people rise up against him? If his government is toppled, what would replace it? Or would all of the competing factions go at each other and plunge the country into lawlessness? This last, worst-case scenario is what keeps everyone worried and keeps me watching, because then the pirates may truly move in...