Searching from tribe to tribe


Refuge: Cooperating with America's war on terrorism, the Yemeni government hunts for al-Qaida suspects and runs into distinct cultures and customs.

April 08, 2002|By Larry Kaplow | Larry Kaplow,COX NEWS SERVICE

MARIB, Yemen - Two suspected al-Qaida operatives made their way through this ancient tribal town in December. The Yemeni army, spurred by the U.S.-led war on terror, came looking for them.

The local tribal militia was wary of the government troops on their turf. When a government fighter jet roared past, tribal fighters feared an air attack and opened fire.

The first major battle in Yemen's U.S.-inspired campaign against terrorism consisted of 800 tribal warriors firing on 200 government troops. The tribal fighters didn't stop shooting until about 20 soldiers were killed and the rest had fled.

After the incident that both sides called a "misunderstanding," the tribal sheiks did the customary and mandatory Yemeni thing. They turned their sons over to be "guests" of the government - to be housed in barracks rather than jails - to show that they are serious about helping the government track down al-Qaida operatives, who are believed to be taking refuge in Yemen.

American military advisers on their way here to try to organize the Yemeni army will find a poor country where tribal leaders win trust by exchanging oxen and daggers, and where tribal customs are more reliable than laws.

U.S. troops - fewer than 100 are expected - will see a tribal culture somewhat like the one that has complicated American efforts in Afghanistan.

In an age where information, commerce and even terrorism are globalized, Yemen's tribes survive by localizing.

"Their country is their village and the neighboring village," says Krzysztof Suprowicz, the Polish ambassador to Yemen. "That is their country."

For centuries, Yemenis steeled themselves against foreign invaders by building villages high on mountains or insulated by rugged deserts.

About 18 million people live in Yemen, and tribes can consist of several hundred thousand or even a couple of million people.

The national government has remarkably little power over much of the country. The tribes, based on extended families and geography, provide for their members by pooling basic and scarce desert resources such as water and arable land.

Robed tribesmen carrying curved daggers in their belts is still a common sight here. But it is the Kalashnikov rifle, possessed by nearly every man, that gives the tribes their muscle.

Men with rifles kidnapped Suprowicz about two years ago and held him for four days.

Kidnapping is a common tactic of tribes seeking government services, such as new roads. In Suprowicz's case, the tribe wanted the government to release a sheik being held on suspicion that he had met secretly with Saudi Arabian contacts. The Saudis are longtime meddlers in Yemeni affairs.

Suprowicz says the tribesmen treated him well, included him in their meetings and swore to protect him. But they seemed not to grasp what his title of ambassador meant.

As in other kidnappings in Yemen, the central government was in effect seen by Suprowicz's captors as just another tribe. The government could not secure his release, so an up-and-coming tribal leader named Sheik Abdulkarim bin Ali Murshed did.

"The government can't ignore a tribe and do whatever it wants to do," explains Abdulkarim, who leads a tribe of about 100,000 people and has formed an organization to settle tribal disputes and oppose terrorism.

Abdulkarim, 36, figures to play a role in Yemen's transition as the world closes in on the largely insular country.

He recently went to the capital in his robes and turban, carrying his dagger and a mobile phone, riding in a Toyota Land Cruiser filled with armed guards. He presented himself at the U.S. Embassy to invite the ambassador to a wedding.

Ambassador Edmund Hull was glad to attend, lending his support to a tribesman who was risking his reputation by bridging the gap with America.

"The tribal system is a civilized one," Abdulkarim says. "It preserves very noble ideas, like protecting the vulnerable, the rich helping the poor, protecting people's rights."

But the system faces a tough test in the new world of al-Qaida and the war on terror.

It was in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000 that suspected al-Qaida operatives blew a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. In 1994, President Ali Abdullah Saleh welcomed Arab fighters trained in Afghanistan to join northern tribes to help crush a rebellion in southern Yemen, pulling more external forces into the mix.

The two al-Qaida suspects who were the subject of the search in December wormed their way into the arms of tribal protection. They handed out cash in U.S. dollars and lent a couple of cars to people who introduced them to the tribal leaders. People were impressed by the al-Qaida suspects' religious piety and their portable satellite telephone.

"Al-Qaida went to the tribes asked for help and got it," says Yemeni presidential adviser Abdul Hadi Hamdani. "[The tribes] do not understand what they represent."

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