Yemen

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A car bomb and rocket attack on the US embassy in Yemen has killed at least 16 people, including civilians and Yemeni security guards, Yemen officials said. -bbc

Why Yemen?

You might not know this, because the Bush Administration prefers you not, but Yemen is one of those places that is a major training ground and stopping off point for al-Qaeda linked (= can be hired by al-Qaeda at discount rates) groups. Yemen is more of a threat to US ‘interests’ in the middle east than Afghanistan, if we measure in numbers of crazy anti-US terrorists per cave or in absolute numbers. The entire time that primary occupation forces of the US army has been focused on Iraq and the US military Special Forces have been focused on Afghanistan, other agencies which shall not be named have never let their gaze stray from the hidden wadis and secret coastline of this most unstable of Arabian Peninsula nations.

To paint the Yemenese as crazy anti-US terrorists is, however, a bit unfair. It is not so simple or single minded. This is a region, like many other places in Europe and West Asia, where tribal organization has formed around militant requirements, so it is not difficult or particularly expensive for internal or external agencies to organize what are essentially mercenary contingents to carry out any of a number of tasks. Throw a little religion into the mix, and you’ve got a pattern. Sicily, Ireland, Yemen, Whatever. And over the last decade or so, Yemen has become something of a specialized market in this regard shopped by anti-American (or anti-Western) interests.

The USS Cole attack in which 17 US seamen were killed in 2000 was one of a series of similar attempts, and something like the third or fourth in a row of actual attacks with actual boats with actual bombs … but the first in the series to actually reach the ship and actually explode. Yesterday’s deadly attack on the US embassy in Yemen was the second such attack this year. US Special Forces are deployed in the country, though I have no idea where exactly, and I’m sure there are occasional skirmishes. Officially, we are not allowed to know about these things most of the time.

Why Yemen?

Think of Yemen as the ragged edge of the Arabian Peninsula. In the past, this region has received a reasonable amount of rainfall, compared to today. (There still is rain, and much of it is concentrated in Yemen.) Rain + big flat place = canyons galore around the edges. The Olduvai Gorge and the Grand Canyon would be very much at home among the vast and meandering wadis of this coast, where for a couple/few million years seasonal floods have cut into the raised plateau of the peninsula. And every wadi leads to a point on the coast where transport to and from any point in the world can be effected by an ancient tradition of runners and smugglers. This coast, dear reader, is where pirates were invented and it is one of the earliest regions that we know of archaeologically of international maritime trade.

For years before the recent al-Qaidaization of indigenous tribal Islam by the West, tribal groups living in the rugged interior have harassed foreign teams of oil workers. The routine became familiar: Small groups of reasonably well secured oil workers would occasionally be kidnapped by the local boys club. A message is sent to HQ specifying the ransom. Ransom paid, workers released. For the oil company executive, the best strategy was to hire a small team of analytics experts to work out the optimal strategy given differential costs of lost time, security costs, and ransom. As long as the ransom was reasonable and nobody was shooting, the tribes would have a good business.

The archaeologists I’ve known to work in the area freeloaded off of the oil companies. If a team of archaeologist were to be captured, the ransom would be unpayable (hard to work that into one’s NSF budget), and that would cause an international scene, and throw everything out of whack. Therefore, the archaeologists traveled under the joint auspices of the tribes and the oil company and were generally left out of this.

My former student, who I think should remain nameless in this context (she lives in the region) is one of the few to work in the area on her own, without coverage of oil companies or anyone else, by using her linguistic ability and her wits. She actually studied the ancient system of trade and exchange, as well as religious pilgrimage, and I’m convinced this gave her a special status in this land of the Haj.

By the way, if Osama Bin Laden is anywhere, it is here. He’s ethnically of Hadramount ancestry, the kingdom that later became South Yemen. I don’t suggest that he is holed up in Yemen because of his ethnicity or even any family ties that may be there. It’s just that Yemen has some pretty good wadis to hide in, and the winters are not so bad.

Comments

  1. #1 wazza
    September 17, 2008

    I believe it was Yemen a friend of my parents’ went to in order to design a new toilet with a flush that could accommodate both paper and the stones (yes, just rocks they picked up off the ground. If they found a good one, they kept it) traditionally used as we would use paper in the region.

    I have no idea if the effort was successful.

  2. #2 Rose Colored Glasses
    September 17, 2008

    Riyadh would be a better place for OBL to hide out safely and comfortably. The House of Saud hosts exiles as a sideline.

  3. #3 protected static
    September 17, 2008

    The House of Saud isn’t so kindly disposed towards those exiles who’ve promised to overthrow them, however…

  4. #4 Joe
    September 17, 2008

    Looks like our “War on Terror” is showing the expected results: According to the BBC, “the deadly car bombing outside the US embassy in Yemen represents an escalation in attacks against Western targets and shows al Qaeda-inspired jihadis are growing in ability and determination.” We’ve certainly won the hearts and minds of these folk over to see America in a more positive light. That’s what dropping bombs on civilians and special forces assaults will do every time.