Yemen: Saleh Plays the ‘Terror’ Card Again

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A picture of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is seen in his burnt ruling party headquarters in the Al Hasba neighborhood of Sanaa. (Photo: REUTERS - Ahmed Jadallah)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Tuesday, October 4, 2011

US President Barack Obama is not alone in seeking to benefit politically from the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American radical preacher killed by a US drone attack in a remote part of Yemen last week.

Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh hopes the assassination will help him keep power, or at least ensure his relatives a key role in the government following a negotiated political transition.

It is unclear if Saleh or his regime had any role in the attack, in which another American citizen accompanying al-Awlaki was also killed. But the strike came just days after Saleh’s sudden return to Yemen from Saudi Arabia, where he received medical treatment for several months. Many think his unexpected homecoming would have been impossible without Saudi and US approval.

Saleh has long sought US support by portraying himself as Washington’s indispensable partner in combating ‘terrorism.’ Al-Awlaki’s killing enables Saleh to buttress that image, perhaps earning him political points, while he stalls over a deal to end the months-long popular uprising and military rebellion against his rule.

The assassination’s timing fuelled suspicions that it was linked to Saleh’s political machinations. It is widely believed in Yemen that Saleh and his regime knew of al-Awlaki’s whereabouts and had passed on many opportunities to arrest him, despite an indictment for his prosecution in Yemeni courts. From this perspective, Saleh sacrificed al-Awlaki to the US to gain their support at this crucial juncture.

Saleh, however, is not alone in pandering for US approval. Yemeni opposition parties remain unusually quiet about the assassination, though the attack blatantly violates Yemen’s sovereignty and shows contempt for the country’s laws.

Opposition parties seek to justify their silence. They say they do not want to give the president any pretext to depict them as soft on or in cahoots with al-Qaeda, a line Saleh frequently uses. The opposition also wants to signal to the US that they will be willing partners against ‘terrorism’ if they were to assume power.

But it could prove politically costly for the opposition to follow Saleh’s lead in this regard. There is public outrage in Yemen toward routine US violations of Yemen’s sovereignty. By downplaying the seriousness of the issue, the opposition parties stand to lose even more credibility in the eyes of anti-regime protesters. Confidence in the political parties has already been severely eroded by their efforts to negotiate a compromise with the regime. Their standing may further deteriorate if the public perceives them as cooperative with the US at the expense of national sovereignty.

While Saleh applauds and the opposition dithers, discussions in the US took a different tack. Questions have been raised about the lengths to which successive administrations are prepared to go to in targeting supposed ‘terrorists’ – often their own citizens, as well as foreigners, with views the US government considers dangerous.

The Obama administration lost no time celebrating al-Awlaki’s death. It anticipated controversy over the killing, which is part of a CIA program targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects for assassination by drones. The administration sought to preempt critics by playing up al-Awlaki’s importance, describing him as an al-Qaeda foreign operations chief in the Arabian Peninsula. It also stressed that the Justice Department had cleared the operation.

But criticism has nevertheless been fierce. “When America kills its own without a trial, it not only demeans itself but it hands over a propaganda victory to its enemies,” wrote Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations. The White House’s “authorization of this killing also tells American Muslims that a precedent has been set by their government to kill American citizens abroad without trial if they oppose their country.”

US policy analysts have questioned the practical effectiveness of targeted drone assassinations, and rights groups have challenged its legality. The Center for Constitutional Rights said the use of lethal force outside designated war zones was “illegal and unacceptable.” The group had been appointed by al-Awlaki’s father to represent him after it was first reported that Obama had authorized his assassination. But its efforts to challenge the decision in US courts were stalled long enough for the administration carry out the killing.

Meanwhile, the administration emphasized the threat al-Awlaki posed to the US. Last year, US Attorney General Eric Holder described al-Awlaki as on par with Osama Bin Laden. After al-Awlaki’s assassination, the US State Department issued a travel advisory cautioning US citizens of possible retaliatory attacks in different parts of the world.

Jomana Farhat is a reporter at al-Akhbar's Arabic Edition

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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