OK, so it’s a nice story. Semi-nice, at least. Two German girls, aged 3 and 5, were released after being kidnapped 11 months ago by persons unknown in Yemen. The whereabouts of their parents, and their younger brother, and the five other people kidnapped within them, are unknown; the prognosis doesn’t look good. Cue a celebratory headline in the London Times. “Little girls snatched by ‘al-Qaeda group’ are set free”. Of course, the Times is not the place to go for especially informed reporting on Yemen, but nonetheless it is a very lazy connection to make. Yemen is a lot more complicated than that.
I’m no expert on the country – for that, go to the legendary Waq-al-Waq or its recent successor, Always Judged Guilty – but there are two points that need to be stressed.
Firstly, Al-Qaeda is not really the issue in Yemen at the moment. The country has three insurrections, of various intensities; its economy is shambolic, at best; and it is rapidly running out of food (including, of all things, dates). Water shortages are also on the horizon. Al-Qaeda, while a threat, is the least of the country’s problems.
Secondly, I think it unlikely that Al-Qaeda was behind the kidnapping (and release). Hostage-taking in Yemen has tended to be the preserve of the various rebel and tribal movements which display significantly less discipline than that practised by AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and the Times‘s ‘sources in Yemen’ sound suitably vague – sounds like someone needed a catchy headline. What further damages the credibility of the story is its claim that “Al-Qaeda has regrouped in Yemen behind the jihadist preacher Anwar al-Awlaki”. Al-Awlaki, as you probably won’t remember, was the preacher said to be behind both the Christmas Day Nigerian wannabe-bomber Umar Abdul Mutallab, and the US servicemen who went on the rampage in Fort Hood. A nasty character, without doubt, but certainly not the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Yemen. His prominence is only due to his connection with those two high-profile incident, and, crucially, because he speaks and preaches in English, making him easily accessible to western reporters.
Yemen is undoubtedly fragile, and will depend to a large degree on the largesse and actions of the international community. However, if the right decisions are going to be made, the people making them are going to need much better information than that provided by the Times (it should be noted that western reporting of Yemen is generally poor; the Times just gave me very current example).
But the most interesting part of the article went completely unremarked by the authors – that the two girls were rescued as result of a Saudi Arabian cross-border raid. The Saudi security forces were extremely effective in knobbling Al-Qaeda in Saudi, which is why they were forced into Yemen; that they’re now crossing into Yemen at will is an interesting, and unexplained development.