2011-03-28 Yemeni Commander That Defected Was Once Targeted by Saleh Plus Latest on Al Qaeda in #Yemen

ImageSaudi pilots tasked with striking Houthis in northern Yemen aborted the mission after realizing the site they were being asked to hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a Yemeni northern area commander and known political opponent of Saleh. That’s what a cable released by WikiLeaks sent out from the US Embassy in Riyadh on February 7, 2010 reads.

In recent days, Al-Ahmar has become a significant player in the unfolding events in Yemen. About a week ago he declared that he was going to join the revolution. Just this past Sunday, according to Agence France Presse, he “vowed to bring about Saleh’s overthrow.”

The revelation comes from a meeting that took place between Ambassador James B. Smith and Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Khaled bin Sultan. Ambassador Smith met with Prince Khaled to express concerns about the “sharing” of US government satellite imagery with Saudi Arabia after evidence of Saudi aircraft strikes on civilian targets. Particularly, Ambassador Smith expressed concern over “an apparent Saudi air strike on a building that the US believed to be a Yemeni medical clinic.” Prince Khaled is shown a satellite image of the building.

Upon seeing the photograph, Prince Khalid remarked, "This looks familiar," and added, "if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem." He noted that Saudi Air Force operations were necessarily being conducted without the desired degree of precision, and recalled that a clinic had been struck, based on information received from Yemen that it was being used as an operational base by the Houthis. Prince Khalid explained the Saudi approach to its fight with the Houthis, emphasizing that the Saudis had to hit the Houthis very hard in order to "bring them to their knees" and compel them to come to terms with the Yemeni government. "However," he said, "we tried very hard not to hit civilian targets." The Saudis had 130 deaths and the Yemenis lost as many as one thousand. "Obviously," Prince Khaled observed, "some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen."

Prince Khaled goes on to explain that targets are “given to the Saudi Air Force were studied and recommended by a Saudi-Yemeni joint committee headed by Saudi and Yemeni general officers.” It is possible that committee made a mistake. He then relays information about how Saudis now have to be extra cautious about target recommendations from the Yemen government.

…There was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh.

That the cable is now gaining attention is interesting because it was published three months ago. Also, AFP cites the Norwegian daily Aftenposten as a source for their short post on this cable. But, at 1:14 PM New York Time, there is no Aftenposten story posted on this cable. So, did Aftenposten even run this story?

The author does not make this note to suggest media organizations should not cover cables that have already been disclosed. Certainly, as events unfold in Yemen, a revisiting of the cables is called for, especially as players in the story come to the fore that may have been unimportant before the uprising and political upheaval. However, the AFP could easily have done a Google search or gone to one of the databases keeping track of cables and found this cable to see if it was new or not.

A part of the AFP post reads, “The daily did not mention the date of the cable but said the document detailed a "secret" meeting between US diplomats and Saudi Arabian Vice Defence Minister Khaled Ben Sultan on February 6, 2010.” All one has to do is a few cursory keyword searches and the cable can easily be found.

Now, on the defecting commander Al-Ahmar, Al-Ahmar, according to News Yemen, said, “President Ali Abdullah Saleh might use the card of al-Qaeda in an attempt to cling to power and use force against anti-regime protesters.” In an interview with a German News Agency, he did not think al Qaeda would begin to have a growing influence on the turmoil, however, he thought Saleh would use al Qaeda to drag the country into greater problems and justify using force against anti-regime people.

Al-Ahmar also disputed the fear of civil war breaking out in Yemen: “It is true that the Yemeni people have arms but they are now armed with awareness and know how to peacefully demand their rights…Yemeni people put down their weapons in their houses and they are ready to face attacks with their bare chests.”

And, he suggested that Saleh will use his alliance with the US in the global war on terror to “stay in power.”

Reuters has covered cables suggesting Al-Ahmar is likely the second most powerful man in Yemen, a “brutal military commander likely to back a more radical Islamic political agenda and draw little public support.” The cable notes that Al-Ahmar rules with an “iron fist” (but manages to get Al-Ahmar’s age and the region he commands wrong).

The cable correctly highlights how Al-Ahmar is in the business of smuggling and has “amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products.”

Reuters reports in addition to the cable, “Although the opposition welcomed Mohsen's support earlier this week, they are also wary of his loyalties, which fall along the country's tribal and ideological fault lines. Northern Shi'ite rebels see Mohsen as a ruthless military leader who led the military campaign against them in a bloody civil war. Leftists and southerners worry that their goals for democracy will be overtaken in a military power struggle, while the Islamist opposition is thought to view Mohsen more favorably.”

The US renewed its support for Saleh on Sunday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said his fall or replacement by a weaker leader would be “a real problem” for US counterterrorism operations. He added, “I think it is a real concern because the most active and at this point perhaps the most aggressive branch of Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, operates out of Yemen.”

Moreover, Saleh continues to claim he has killed al Qaeda or that al Qaeda was involved in this violence or that unrest when there is little evidence to prove they were present. The ammunition factory explosion today was blamed on al Qaeda, but it appears a looter dropped a cigarette and the factory exploded. This does not seem like a planned terrorist attack.

Read AFP's report on what happened:

A security official said the explosions rocked the plant as dozens of residents were inside helping themselves to whatever ammunition and guns were left after Sunday's raid by suspected Al-Qaeda fighters.

Al-Qaeda militants had lured the civilians into a "lethal trap," charged a spokesman for the restive southern province of Abyan, where he said a series of blasts set off a blaze which destroyed the plant.

The blasts were triggered by explosive powder left behind by Al-Qaeda, according to the unnamed official quoted on the defence ministry newspaper's 26sep.net website.

There was no "explosive powder" left behind save for the gunpowder that al Qaeda militants maybe didn't take with them after raiding the factory. And, there's no "trap." The factory was raided by militants a day or two ago and the people came in for the leftovers. Given the escalating violence in Yemen, it shouldn't be surprising that Yemenis want to get their hands on weapons for protection.

Armed groups are believed to have taken over Abyan in south Yemen. Those groups are alleged to be al Qaeda. The government announced on Saturday that three al Qaeda had been killed. But, it’s possible those killed were just “locals.”

As Saleh’s legitimacy continues to weaken, as he depends on the US more and more to stay in power, al Qaeda will likely continue to be the one justification he has for clamping down on the uprising and staying in power. Al Qaeda militants are probably in Yemen taking advantage of the climate. But, not every militant is with al Qaeda. Some "militant" action will take place because of Saleh's repression and the "militants" involved will just be Yemenis with no affiliation to al Qaeda at all.