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Profile: Ali Abdallah Saleh
Ali Abdallah Saleh was a participant or observer in the following events:
Following the Yemen Civil War, which Islamic militants help the north to win, the militants are allowed to settle in Yemen. Before the war, Osama bin Laden had provided several million dollars to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a Yemeni general and a brother of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh, to help settle Arab Afghan fighters in the country (see May 21-July 7, 1994). Yemeni Prime Minister Abd al-Karim al-Iryani will later say: “Yes, these jihadis have helped us during the secessionist war, and yes, we decided that they must be absorbed into the government system afterwards and not let loose to cause trouble.” This policy is devised by President Saleh, who becomes known for his “big tent” strategy of reaching out to Islamic militants. [New York Times, 11/26/2000] In 2000, Jane’s Intelligence Review will comment that “harboring terrorists has become something of a cottage industry in Yemen” and estimate the number of militants who fought in the Soviet-Afghan War present in the country may be as high as 2,000. Bin Laden, whose family is originally from Yemen, is also said to visit the county a number of times. The money he provides is used to set up small businesses, including safe houses and document forgery shops. Yemen becomes a base for al-Qaeda operations in Africa and counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna will later write, “Only some 35 percent of Yemen is under the permanent influence and control of the government, so its state of lawlessness would have made it an ideal base for al-Qaeda.” [Jane's Intelligence Review, 7/1/1999; Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 186-7]
Yemen asks Britain to hand over militant cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is wanted in connection with crimes committed by the Islamic Army of Aden (IAA—see December 23, 1998). [Quin, 2005, pp. 107] Although Abu Hamza has not yet been formally charged with a role in the plot, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh complains that he has been “planning and financing sabotage and bombings in Yemen.” Saleh also writes a personal letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to send the cleric to Yemen for trial. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 164, 172, 177] However, Britain says that it has not received a formal request for extradition. Author Mary Quin will later comment, “Since no extradition treaty exists between Yemen and Britain, it is unlikely that a formal request would have been made—but very likely that Yemen communicated its strong desire to lay its hands on the handless Hamza, one way or another.” Abu Hamza supports and funds jihad in Yemen and is the IAA’s spokesperson (see (June 1998)). In December 1998, one of the IAA’s demands in return for freeing kidnapped hostages was that Abu Hamza’s stepson be released from prison in Yemen (see December 28-29, 1998). [Quin, 2005, pp. 107] As a result of the row between the two countries, on January 3 Britain announces that Yemen’s application to join the Commonwealth has been rejected, because it “does not meet the entry criteria on good governance.” Yemen responds that it does not care and it is withdrawing the application anyway. [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 172]
Hussein Arab [Source: al-bab]Yemen’s interior minister, Hussein Arab, issues a letter to al-Qaeda commander Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri instructing Yemeni authorities to give safe passage to al-Nashiri and three bodyguards without being searched or intercepted. The letter states that, “All security forces are instructed to cooperate with him and facilitate his mission.” Al-Nashiri’s mission turns out to be the attack on the USS Cole in which seventeen US sailors are killed (see October 12, 2000). Arab will be removed from his position in April 2001, but the letter will not come to light until the Cole trial in Yemen in 2004, when it is read out in court by the defense. Jamal Amer, editor of the weekly Al-Wasat, will comment that the letter “proves that there is a link between the security authorities and these groups.” [Associated Press, 8/25/2004] In May 2001, UPI will report, “According to several US government sources, one of the reasons the attack on the Cole succeeded was involvement by the ‘highest levels’ of the Yemen government of President Ali Abdallah Saleh, although Saleh himself personally was not, one said.” [United Press International, 5/20/2001]
Ali Abdallah Saleh. [Source: Helene C. Stikkel / Defense Department]In 2002, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh is facing pressure from the US, who wants him to imprison Islamist militants, and many people in Yemen who are sympathetic to militant groups like al-Qaeda. Saleh comes up with a compromise program of “intellectual dialogue.” Hundreds of imprisoned militants are lectured by religious figures and discuss Islamic law and ethics. Those who sign a pledge not to carry out any attacks on Yemeni soil are let go, and are often helped with money and new jobs. Abu Jandal, bin Laden’s former chief bodyguard, goes through the program and later explains that it is basically a political bargain. Few militants actually change their views, but they understand that if they do not attack within Yemen they will be left alone. When interviewed in 2008, Jandal will say he still supports al-Qaeda, and urges other militants to avoid violence in Yemen. The New York Times will later comment, “American counterterrorism officials and even some Yemenis say the Yemeni government… is in effect striking a deal that helps stop attacks here while leaving jihadists largely free to plan them elsewhere.” For instance, Jandal claims to know some men who go through the program, only to later fight against US troops in Iraq. Another militant who went through the program admits to training militants to fight in Iraq, since that is not prohibited either. This program is officially canceled in Yemen in 2005, but it effectively continues. For instance, in 2007 the Yemeni government secretly frees Fahad al-Quso, a key figure in the 2000 USS Cole bombing (see May 2007). The program also is copied in Saudi Arabia and still in use there. [New York Times, 1/28/2008]
Qaed Salim Sinan Al-Harethi (right) with Osama bin Laden on May 26, 1998, in Khost, Afghanistan. [Source: CNN via Getty Images]Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz confirms that the assassination of Qaed Senyan al-Harethi in Yemen two days earlier (see November 3, 2002) was done with a US Predator drone that struck the truck carrying al-Harethi and five others. Initial reported suggested that the truck was destroyed by a car bomb, but this cover story is blown when Wolfowitz brags about the success of the operation on CNN, revealing US involvement. Newsweek reports that “The CIA, which ran the operation, was furious with the Defense Department for blowing its cover story.” US procedures required that the Yemeni government had to give approval of the strike in advance, and the revelation of such approval is highly embarrassing to the Yemeni government. [Washington Post, 11/6/2002; Newsweek, 11/11/2002] There are widespread protests in Yemen and the US Embassy has to be closed for a period of time following Wolfowitz’s revelation. [Salon, 8/13/2004] A knowledgeable source tells Newsweek that Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh is “highly pissed” about the leak. CIA officials worry the leak will discourage other countries from allowing Predator strikes within their borders. A former senior CIA official says, “The Pentagon view seems to be, this is good, it shows we can reach out and touch ‘em. The CIA view is, you dumb bastards, this means no other country will cooperate with us!” [Newsweek, 11/11/2002] Yayha Almutawakel, deputy secretary general of the ruling party in Yemen, says,
“This is why it is so difficult to make deals with the United States. This is why we are reluctant to work closely with them. They don’t consider the internal consequences in Yemen. In security matters you don’t want to alert the enemy.” [Salon, 8/13/2004] Wolfowitz’s leak also starts a debate about the morality and legality of the strike, especially since a US citizen was killed (see November 5- December, 2002).
Two simultaneous suicide attacks on oil and gas installations in Yemen fail. The Safer refinery in Marib and the al-Dhabba terminal in Hadramout are attacked by four suicide bombers with car bombs, but Yemeni security forces blow the cars up just before they reach their targets. The four suicide bombers and one security guard are killed. The attacks come just a few days after al-Qaeda number two leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for attacks on oil facilities in the Persian Gulf region. A Yemeni court later sentences 32 men to between two and 15 years in jail for their roles in the attacks. Three of them are alleged al-Qaeda operatives tried in absentia who escaped from prison earlier in 2006 (see February 3, 2006). [BBC, 11/7/2007] Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam for several of the 9/11 hijackers while they lived in the US, was arrested in Yemen earlier in the month (see Early September 2006-December 2007). He allegedly also has a role preparing for the foiled attacks. [Australian, 11/3/2006; Australian, 11/4/2006] The attempted attacks also come just days before Yemen’s presidential elections. Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, in power since 1978, quickly uses the attacks to criticize his opponent, because one of the opponents’ guards was accused of being involved. The guard is later acquitted. Saleh wins reelection. [New York Times, 3/1/2008] In 2008, one anonymous senior Yemeni official will tell the Washington Post that some important al-Qaeda members have had a long relationship with Yemen’s intelligence agencies and have targeted political opponents in the past. [Washington Post, 5/4/2008]
Security forces after the Sheba temple bombing. [Source: Marib Press / Associated Press]A suicide bomber drives into a convoy of Spanish tourists visiting an ancient temple in Yemen, killing eight Spaniards and two Yemenis. The attack takes place near a 3,000 year old temple dedicated to the Queen of Sheba, about 85 miles east of the capital of Sana’a. No group claims responsibility for the bombing, but less than two weeks earlier, the US embassy issued a warning for Americans to avoid the area, due to suspicions of a planned al-Qaeda attack. [Associated Press, 7/3/2007; BBC, 8/8/2007] One month later, Yemeni security forces kill some suspected al-Qaeda militants, including three men, Ali bin Ali Naser Doha, Naji Ali Jaradan, and Abdul-Aziz Saeed Jaradan, who are believed to have been involved in the bombing. One of those that is not killed is Kassem al-Raimi, an alleged top al-Qaeda operative thought to have masterminded the attack. Al-Raimi was one of many who escaped from a Yemeni prison the year before (see February 3, 2006). [BBC, 8/8/2007; Yemen Times, 8/12/2007] In several interviews after the bombing, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh will claim his government has reached a new truce with al-Qaeda. [Associated Press, 10/26/2007]
Jaber Elbaneh’s appearance in court. [Source: Associated Press / Mohammed al-Qadhi.]Jaber Elbaneh, an Islamist militant wanted by the US, comes out of hiding to appear in court in Yemen, but is not arrested. Elbaneh, a US citizen and whose family came from Yemen, had lived in Lackawanna, New York, before the 9/11 attacks. He went to Afghanistan to train at an al-Qaeda training camp along with about six other men from Lackawanna, but while the others dropped out and returned to the US, Elbaneh never returned (see April-August 2001). He moved to Yemen. The Yemeni government says he also helped plan the 2002 attack on the oil tanker Limburg off Yemen’s coast (see October 6, 2002). He was arrested there in 2004 after being charged in the US for attending the training camp. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, but in February 2006, he and 22 other suspected al-Qaeda operatives escaped from a high-security Yemeni prison (see February 3, 2006). The US offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest. Elbaneh was then implicated in a September 2006 bombing in Yemen that took place several days before national elections (see September 15, 2006). Some suggest the bombers may have colluded with the government to use the bombing to successfully help Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh win reelection. Elbaneh was convicted, but allowed to stay at home under a loose form of house arrest. Given the outstanding $5 million reward for him, Elbaneh appears to surprise everyone by appearing in court where his conviction in the 2006 bombing was being appealed. Furthermore, he gives a speech proclaiming his innocence. He says that after his prison escape, he surrendered directly to President Saleh in May 2007, who absolved him of any jail time. The New York Times comments: “Perhaps the greatest mystery surrounding [Elbaneh] is his decision to appear in court… The Yemeni government has generally instructed the jihadists with whom it arranges amnesty to avoid the news media and keep low profiles. But Mr. Elbaneh deliberately spoke out in a public setting, with journalists present, and named the president in his brief tirade.” [Reuters, 2/27/2008; New York Times, 3/1/2008]
A front-page Washington Post story reveals that, eight years after al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole just off the coast of Yemen and killed 17 US soldiers (see October 12, 2000), “all the defendants convicted in the attack have escaped from prison or been freed by Yemeni officials.”
Two Key Suspects Keep Slipping from Yemeni Prisons - For instance, Jamal al-Badawi, a Yemeni and key organizer of the bombing, broke out of Yemeni prisons twice and then was secretly released in 2007 (see April 11, 2003-March 2004, February 3, 2006 and October 17-29, 2007). The Yemeni government jailed him again after the US threatened to cut aid to the country, but apparently he continues to freely come and go from his prison cell. US officials have demanded the right to perform random inspections to make sure he stays jailed. Another key Cole suspect, Fahad al-Quso, also escaped from a Yemeni prison and then was secretly released in 2007 (see May 2007). Yemen has refused to extradite al-Badawi and al-Quso to the US, where they have been indicted for the Cole bombing. FBI Director Robert Mueller flew to Yemen in April 2008 to personally appeal to Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh to extradite the two men. However, Saleh has refused, citing a constitutional ban on extraditing its citizens. Other Cole suspects have been freed after short prison terms in Yemen, and at least two went on to commit suicide attacks in Iraq.
US Unwilling to Try Two Suspects in Its Custody - Two more key suspects, Khallad bin Attash and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, were captured by US forces and have been transferred to the US-run Guantanamo prison. Al-Nashiri is considered the mastermind of the Cole bombing, but the US made the decision not to indict either of them because pending criminal charges could have forced the CIA or the Pentagon to give up custody of the men. Al-Quso, bin Attash, and al-Nashiri all attended a key 2000 al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia where the 9/11 attacks were discussed (see January 5-8, 2000).
'The Forgotten Attack' - A week after the Cole bombing, President Bill Clinton vowed to hunt down the plotters and promised, “Justice will prevail.” But less than a month after the bombing, George W. Bush was elected president. Roger Cressey, a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations who helped oversee the White House’s response to the Cole bombing, says, “During the first part of the Bush administration, no one was willing to take ownership of this. It didn’t happen on their watch. It was the forgotten attack.”
'Back to Square One' - Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, a lead investigator into the bombing, complains,
“After we worked day and night to bring justice to the victims and prove that these Qaeda operatives were responsible, we’re back to square one. Do they have laws over there or not? It’s really frustrating what’s happening.” The Post comments, “Basic questions remain about which individuals and countries played a role in the assault on the Cole.”
Possible Government Complicity - One anonymous senior Yemeni official tells the Post that al-Badawi and other al-Qaeda members have had a long relationship with Yemen’s intelligence agencies and have targeted political opponents in the past. For instance, in 2006, an al-Qaeda suicide attack in Yemen came just days before elections there, and Saleh tried to link one of the figures involved to the opposition party, helping Saleh win reelection (see September 15, 2006). Furthermore, there is evidence that figures within the Yemeni government were involved in the Cole bombing (see After October 12, 2000), and that the government also protected key bombers such as al-Nashiri in the months before and after the bombings (see April 2000 and Shortly After October 12, 2000).
Bush Unwilling to Meet with Victims' Relatives - Relatives of the soldiers killed in the bombing have attempted to meet with President Bush to press for more action, to no avail. John P. Clodtfelter Jr., whose son died on the Cole, says, “I was just flat told that he wouldn’t meet with us. Before him, President Clinton promised we’d go out and get these people, and of course we never did. I’m sorry, but it’s just like the lives of American servicemen aren’t that important.” [Washington Post, 5/4/2008]
Entity Tags: John P. Clodtfelter Jr., Ali Soufan, Ali Abdallah Saleh, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Fahad al-Quso, Jamal al-Badawi, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, Yemen, Khallad bin Attash, Roger Cressey, Robert S. Mueller III, George W. Bush
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline
The US has been conducting airstrikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen, but denying responsibility for them, according to cables provided by the whistleblower organization Wikileaks to the British daily The Guardian. The bombings are being attributed to local forces rather than the US in an attempt not to rile Arab public opinion. The Guardian breaks the story based on a number of cables provided by Wikileaks, which contain damning quotes. In a September 2009 cable Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh told US President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, “I have given you an open door on terrorism, so I am not responsible.” Following a strike that killed multiple civilians carried out by the US, but attributed to Yemenis in December 2009, US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche cabled Washington to say: “Yemen insisted it must ‘maintain the status quo’ regarding the official denial of US involvement. Saleh wanted operations to continue ‘non-stop until we eradicate this disease.’” Just over a week later, Saleh told General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.” This prompted the deputy prime minister, Rashad al-Alimi, who was also at the meeting, to joke that he had just “lied” by telling parliament the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa (the alleged al-Qaeda strongholds) were American-made but deployed by Yemen. In addition to the secret bombings, the Yemen-related cables published by The Guardian on this day deal with Yemeni reluctance to meet some US demands, the inaccuracy of some US weapons, large payments to be made by the US to Yemen, the Saudi Arabian reaction to the strikes, poor counterterrorism training for staff at Yemeni airports, Yemen’s unwillingness to share information about Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, alleged to be an al-Qaeda bomb-maker, and poor counterterrorist infrastructure in Yemen. [Guardian, 12/3/2010] Before the “war on terror,” the last time the US bombed a country in secret was during the Vietnam War, when the US bombed Cambodia (see March 15-17, 1969). It was a New York Times report on the bombing that was one of the spurs behind President Richard Nixon’s formation of the later-infamous “plumbers” unit (see May 9-10, 1969).
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