Militants Strike in Yemen
The president's party, the General People's Congress, won an enormous victory in the April 1997 parliamentary elections, the first since the civil war. In 1998–1999, a militant Islamic group, the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, kidnapped several groups of Western tourists, which led to the deaths of several during a poorly orchestrated rescue attempt. The group's leader, Zein al-Abidine al-Mihdar, threatened to continue attacks on tourists and government officials. The goal of the militants is to overthrow the government and turn Yemen into an Islamic state.
On Oct. 12, 2000, 17 Americans died and 37 were wounded when suicide bombers attacked the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole, which was refueling in Aden, Yemen. The U.S. had numerous clashes with Yemeni authorities during the investigation of the terrorist act. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., however, Yemen increased its cooperation with the U.S. and assisted in antiterrorism measures. In Oct. 2002, a French tanker, the Limburg, was also the victim of a terrorist attack off the coast of Yemen. Ten suspects of the Cole bombing escaped from prison in April 2003; seven, including the two suspected masterminds of the attack, were recaptured in 2004. Fifteen militants were convicted in Aug. 2004 on a variety of charges, including the attack on the Limburg. In September, two key al-Qaeda operatives involved in the Cole bombing were sentenced to death.
In presidential elections in Sept. 2006, incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh was reelected with 77% of the vote. In March 2007, President Saleh appointed Ali Muhammad Mujawar prime minister and asked him to form a cabinet.
Regional Violence and the Strengthening of al-Qaeda Make Yemen a Volatile State
The government and a rebel group from northern Yemen, called the Houthi movement, signed a cease-fire in February 2008. Thousands died since the two sides began fighting in 2004. The Houthis are members of a political movement based in northern Yemen. They are backed by Iran and adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam, Zaydism. The truce fell apart just a month later, as battles broke out again between the parties. Intermittent violence continued, and the Houthi have proven to be quite resilient and successful in gaining control of land in the northern border region of Saada. In August 2009 the army launched an offensive against the rebels, which prompted fierce retaliation. As many as 50,000 people were displaced in the fighting, in addition to another 150,000 who've been made homeless since 2004. The government has accused the Houthi movement of receiving aid from Iran, while the rebels contend that Saudi Arabia backs the Yemeni government. The rebel group belongs to a branch of Shia Islam.
In September 2008, a car bomb and a rocket strike the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Sanaa as staff arrived to work, killing 16 people, including four civilians. At least 25 suspected al-Qaeda militants are arrested in connection to the attack. Yemen continues to be a fragile state and a breeding ground for al-Qaeda militants. In January 2009, al-Qaeda groups in Saudi Arabia and Yemen joined to create a single branch: al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In December 2009 on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, a 23-year-old Nigerian man allegedly attempted to ignite an explosive device hidden in his underwear. It failed to detonate. The alleged bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, told officials later that he was trained and directed by the terrorist group Al Qaeda. Soon after, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group based in Yemen, took responsibility for orchestrating the attack. The attempted attack underscores the United States' troubled relationship with Yemen, and the likelihood that Al Qaeda is trying to set up an operational and training hub in that country to rival the one currently in Pakistan.
Cease-Fire Tentatively Ends Six-Year War
The government of Yemen and the Houthi rebels agreed to a cease-fire in February 2010, tentatively ending a six-year war. President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced the truce, and rebel leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi endorsed the agreement. The government's main conditions for a cease-fire demanded that rebels open blocked roads, withdraw from civilian areas, return detainees, and refrain from launching attacks on Saudi Arabia. The government of Saudi Arabia had been drawn into the war when a Saudi border guard was killed in November 2009. In the following months at least 133 Saudi soldiers were killed in battles with Houthi guerilla troops. If the cease-fire remains in effect long term, the Yemeni government will be able to focus on the diminishing the presence of Al Qaeda in the country.
Protests Push President Saleh to Announce He Will Not Run for Reelection
The protests that swept through the Middle East in early 2011 also spread to Yemen in early February, with both anti- and pro-government protesters taking to the streets. Thousands of students rallied in the capital Sana and the city of Taiz and called for the resignation of President Saleh, while another bloc of protesters in Aden, a southern city, used demonstrations to underscore their long-sought quest for independence from the north. The students formed an informal alliance, called the Joint Meeting Parties, with Islamists and other opposition groups.
President Saleh promised that he would not use force against the protesters and said he would not run for reelection in 2013, but the protests continued and he reneged on his promise when, on March 18, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in the capital, Sana. Government forces opened fire, killing some 50 protesters. The crackdown fueled the protesters' anger and intensified calls for the Saleh to step down. On March 20, he fired his cabinet and several military leaders and members of the defected to the opposition. March 25 saw the largest protests to date, with pro- and anti-government supporters holding opposing demonstrations in Sana. Saleh said he was willing to step aside if the country would be in "safe hands." However, he defiantly backed off that pledge days later, despite calls by other Arab leaders for him to resign. In late April, representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council presented Saleh and the opposition with a proposal in which Saleh would immediately pass power to his deputy and resign within 30 days. In exchange, he and his family would be granted immunity. The opposition would end the street protests and join a coalition government with Saleh's party. Saleh accepted the offer, but refused on three occasions in May to sign the agreement.
On June 3, Saleh barely survived an attack on the presidential compound. The Ahmar family, opposition leaders whose militia has been fighting Saleh's troops for nearly two weeks, was blamed for the attack. Saleh traveled to Saudi Arabia to receive medical treatment. Members of Saleh's family and allies assumed control of the government. The fighting continued throughout the country during Saleh's absence, and Islamic militants gained control of several regions, leaving the opposition frustrated and demoralized. In addition, a humanitarian crisis emerged, with skyrocketing food prices and a short supply of electricity and fuel. In August, opposition leaders formed a national council, which the government instantly condemned.
Prime Minister Ali Mujawar, who was also injured in the attack on the presidential compound, returned to Yemen from Saudi Arabia in late August. Saleh made a surprise return in late September. He called for a cease-fire and for negotiations to resume, but the fighting continued between government forces and protesters, and soldiers joined the fight alongside with anti-government protesters. In a deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in November 2011, Saleh agreed to step down and hand over power his vice president, Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In addition, the GCC set out a timetable for elections, the drafting of a new constitution, and the formation of a National Dialogue Conference to implement the plans.
American-born al-Qaeda Leader Killed by U.S. Drone
In September 2011, a missile fired from an American drone aircraft in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical, U.S.-born Islamic cleric who was an influential figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Born in New Mexico in 1971, Awlaki became radicalized as a college student and started preaching about global jihad and Islamic extremism at mosques. He moved to Yemen in 2004 and his anti-American sermons grew more threatening. Fluent in both English and Arabic, he was known for his charisma and ability to attract a devoted and passionate following. He is believed to have inspired Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who was convicted of killing 12 fellow soldiers and a civilian in a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009. As head of external operations of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki is believed to have been involved in planning attacks against U.S. targets.
Saleh Cedes Power and Is Given Immunity
President Saleh left Yemen on January 22, 2012. His departure from the country followed a vote by parliament to grant him and members of his government immunity from prosecution. Saleh arrived in the United States later in the month to seek medical treatment. Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the former vice president who took over for Saleh in November, was the only candidate in the February 2012 presidential election, and he won 99.6% of the vote. Saleh was on hand for Hadi's inauguration on February 27, which marked a smooth transition of power. Despite Saleh's resignation, the opposition called for a change of guard in the country's powerful military, whose leadership is split between relatives of Saleh and supporters of the opposition.
Just days into his term, Hadi was confronted with an attack by Yemeni militants on a military outpost in southern Yemen that killed more than 90 soldiers. In May, Hadi launched a campaign to rout al-Qaeda havens in the southern part of Yemen. On May 21, a suicide bomber struck a military parade in Sana, killing more than 100 soldiers. A branch of al-Qaeda took responsibility, saying the attack was in retaliation for the military's crackdown on the jihadists.
Officials Say They Thwarted an al-Qaeda Terrorist Attack
Yemeni officials announced in August 2013 that they had foiled a plan for a large-scale terrorist attack by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Officials said they were alerted to the plot by intercepted communications between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the organization, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the group in Yemen, in which Zawahiri reportedly ordered Wuhayshi to launch the attack, and by the recent arrival to the capital, Sana'a, of dozens of militants. Officials said the militants planned to target Western embassies and offices, the Yemeni military headquarters, and oil and gas pipelines. They did not, however, indicate how they prevented the attacks. The announcement came days after the Obama administration shut down 19 embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa, including posts in Yemen, in response to the intercepted communications. Some analysts were skeptical that Yemen actually thwarted attacks, suggesting instead that Yemen's announcement was politically motivated—an attempt show it could maintain security and that the move by Obama to close the embassies was alarmist. Indeed, after U.S. personnel were evacuated from Yemen, the Yemen embassy in Washington released a statement saying, "Yemen has taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital."
The National Dialogue Conference, which was part of the November 2011 agreement, opened in March 2013 to recommend provisions for a new constitution, ways to shore up the economy, end corruption, and discuss how to curb the secessionist movement in the south. The conference was made up of 565 representatives from political parties, women's groups, youth movements, and other civil organizations. It ended in January 2014, several months behind schedule. While the conference fell short of expectations, it agreed to establish an anti-corruption board, end childhood marriage, improve the rights of women, implement a federal system of government, and work to reduce the marginalization of southerners. In response to the conference, a presidential committee laid out a plan in February for Yemen to become a federation of six regions.
Houthis Take Over Capital; President Hadi Resigns
The Houthis took advantage of the instability in Yemen, and in early July 2014 took control of Amran, a city 45 miles north of the capital, Sana. In August, Houthi leaders demanded that Hadi rescind his decision to end subsidies that helped the poor. The move helped the Houthis to gain wide support, from both Shia and Sunnis, and by early September the Houthis had entered the capital and set up camp there. On Sept. 2, Hadi agreed to form a new government, with the Houthis nominating the prime minister. Hadi also announced a 30% reduction in the price of fuel. The Houthis, however, rejected the concessions as inadequate. Fighting broke out between the rebels and security forces in Sana days later and continued until the Houthis took control of Sana, a stunning accomplishment for the rebels and an equally significant blow for Hadi. The UN brokered a peace deal between the Houthis and the government on September 20. The next day, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa announced his resignation. As part of the deal the Houthis agreed to withdraw from Sana, and Hadi said he would reinstate the fuel subsidy, establish a "technocratic national government," work to rout out corruption, allow the Houthis to select presidential advisers and have more representation in parliament, and implement the provisions of the National Dialogue Conference. The Houthis, however, refused to sign a "security appendix," which called for the rebels to withdraw from Sana and other cities and surrender their weapons. In October, Khaled Bahah, Yemen's former ambassador to the UN, was named prime minister. The Houthis rejected Hadi's first choice.
The rebels did not withdraw from Sana and instead expanded their control of the capital, diminishing the power of the government. Amid the growing instability, both the Houthis and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) gained strength. AQAP considers the Houthis heretics because they adhere to a branch of Shiite Islam, Zaydism. In response to the Houthi's gains throughout Yemen, AQAP began attacking Houthis throughout the country, taking many civilian casualties. The intensifying violence led many to fear a sectarian war. Yemeni officials believe Iran is backing the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia, Iran's rival, has taken action against the Houthis.
Fighting in Sana between Houthi rebels and government troops intensified in January 2015. The escalation followed the release of a draft constitution that called for Yemen to become a federation of six regions, a concept that emerged from the National Dialogue Conference and one that the Houthis oppose. The Houthis surrounded the presidential palace complex, with Hadi inside, and took his chief of staff hostage. On Jan. 21, the Houthis and the government signed a cease-fire, in which the Houthis agreed to withdraw from the presidential palace and the government said it would abandon the regional plan and give the Houthis more say in the naming of government officials. The Houthis, however, reneged on the deal, and Hadi and Bahah were placed under house arrest. On Jan. 22, Hadi and his cabinet resigned, citing the Houthi's failure to abide by the cease-fire. However, the Houthis said in a statement that parliament must approve Hadi's resignation before it can take effect. The statement hinted at the Houthi's reluctance to assume control over the country since it does not have support of the Sunni majority in the south. Many feared that AQAP would take advantage of the political vaccuum. In early February, the Houthis dissolved Parliament and said it would be replaced with a national council that would then form a committee to name a new president. In response to the turmoil, Saudi Arabia withheld aid to Yemen because of the Houthis' ties to Iran. In an attempt to form a compromise government, the UN brokered talks between the Houthis and rival political parties. However, the negotiations quickly broke down.
The UN-mediated talks resumed, and in late February the Houthis agreed that Parliament would remain in place but a new "people’s transitional council" would be established and serve as an upper house of Parliament. The council would include not only Houthis but also representatives from other groups that have complained of being under-represented in Parliament. The two chambers will work together during the transition to a new government. Following this development, President Hadi escaped from house arrest and traveled to Aden. He met with governors from southern regions, who voiced support for his return to power, and began amassing forces loyal to him. On Feb. 21 Hadi said he was still in power, implying that he had withdrawn his resignation.
Troops loyal to Hadi and those allied with the Houthis and former president Saleh, Hadi's rival, battled for control of the international airport in the southern port city of Aden in March 2015. After pitched battles, Hadi's forces retook the airport and seized a Special Security Force base, which was controlled by Saleh. Hadi's presidential compound was hit by warplanes believed to be under the command of either Saleh or the Houthis. The Houthis retreated and called for talks and an end to the fighting. However, the Houthis then took control of Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. They started sending weapons and troops to Taiz, signalling plans to continue the fight against Hadi and his forces. Taiz is about 120 miles from Aden.
In an attempt to stop the Houthi advance and to return President Hadi to power, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab states in an offensive on Houthi targets in Yemen in late March 2015. More than 100 Saudi jets were involved in the airstrikes. A Saudi-led airstrike hit a camp for displaced civilians on March 30, killing as many as 40 people. The Houthis fought back, and the UN warned that Yemen is "on the verge of total collapse." The operation, called Decisive Storm, continued well into April but failed to stop the Houthis' advance. The fighting claimed hundreds of civilian lives, displaced as many as 150,000, and destroyed neighborhoods. An embargo of food and medicine, which the Saudis enforced, created a humanitarian crisis. On April 21, Saudi Arabia said the campaign, having achieved its goals, was over and the country would focus on a political solution. However, the main goals of the operation, to return President Hadi to office and rout the Houthis, were not achieved. Saudi Arabia resumed airstrikes the next day. The U.S. increased the number of ships deployed off the coast of Yemen to prevent Iran from arming the Houthis. The move was a thinly veiled warning to Iran to curtail illegally arming the rebels.
Saudi Arabia brokered a five-day humanitarian truce in May to allow for the delivery of fuel, medicine, and food to Yemenis stranded in areas of conflict and also to allow aid workers access to those civilians. The boming resumed once the truce ended.
Saudi Arabia and other nations have accused Iran of arming the Houthis. The involvement of Saudi Arabia in the dispute runs the risk of inflaming tension or creating a broader conflict in the Middle East.
Yemen-Based Al Qaeda Cell Linked to France Attack; High-Ranking Al-Qaeda Leader Reportedly Killed
AQAP claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attack at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazine. Twelve people were killed in the shooting. It said that the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, ordered the attack in retaliation for the magazine's caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP and the second-in-command of the entire al Qaeda network, was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike in in Yemen in June 2015. Yemeni officials and members of al Qaeda confirmed the report, but the U.S. government has yet to verify the information.
The Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Mosque Attacks as Violence Escalates in Yemen
Sana Province, an affiliate of the Islamic State, said it was responsible for two coordinated attacks on Zaydi Shiite mosques in Sana that killed about 140 civilians during prayers on March 20, 2015. The attacks highlighted the deteriorating security conditions in Yemen, a terrorist training ground. The U.S. has counter-terrorism advisers based in Yemen, and after the attacks it withdrew 125 members of the Special Operations unit.
See also Encyclopedia: Yemen .
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Yemen