Is Yemen the new Pakistan, which was the new Afghanistan, which was the new Saudi Arabia, which was the new Egypt for jihadists seeking to strike the West? The recent attempted cargo-plane bombing certainly gives credence to those who fear that Yemen is the Al Qaeda hub most likely to kill us. Yet even though Yemen has many of the component parts that make for an ideal holy warrior laboratory, Pakistan still has a clear jihadist edge—philosophically and operationally—over what’s developing in the land once called Arabia Felix.
But let us not belittle Yemen’s possibilities. First and foremost, Yemen’s been an intellectual mess for several decades. Religious tribal Shiites have warred against pan-Arab secular tribal Shiites (Yemen is the historic home of the Zaydi, or “Fiver,” Shiites, who had ruling dynasties—the Zaydi “Imamate”—in the country more or less continuously from 897 to 1962); Sunni and Shia Yemenis have, of course, disliked each other through the centuries; many Sunni and Shia Yemenis, especially in the south of the country, once zealously fell in love with Communism. Outsiders, especially Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union, threw troops and materiel into the northern Yemeni civil war, further accelerating the crack-up of traditional institutions and ethics that always work against modern bloody mayhem. As the British travel writer Tim Macintosh-Smith pleasantly put it:
Curiously, the doctrine of Scientific Socialism pursued in the south, ‘making use of all that is positive and fighting all deviations,’ was not unlike that of the Zaydi imamate, which enjoyed ‘commanding all that is suitable and prohibiting that which is disapproved.’ To determine what constituted strayings from the Straight Path of Islam, or leftist/rightist swervings from the Socialist path, the northern sayyids studied the Book of God, while the books of Marx and Lenin became the major reference for the Socialist Politburo. Chief Politburo exegete was Abdulfattah Isma’il, an expert on Socialist doctrine who was known, wryly, as al-Faqih (literally, the scholar of the holy writ). Under his guidance, the early caliphs of Islam were classified according to their rightist or leftist tendencies.
The British presence in Aden (1837–1967) added another layer of cultural Westernization, as well as a foreign imperial presence that many Yemenis loathed. And in an always tense, sometimes violent embrace, Yemenis have increasingly intertwined themselves with their northern neighbor, as Saudi wealth and Wahhabi ideology have become magnets for Sunni Yemenis. And then there is the corrupt, weak, but not hopelessly inept government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a
Zaydi Shiite, who must be all things to all men at whatever speed is required, and, last but not least, the Yemeni diaspora, which has sent talented Yemenis, including Anwar Al Awlaqi’s father, abroad to study and find an easier though not necessarily less complicated life. Add up all of these influences, experimentation, and struggles and you’ve got a Molotov cocktail of a country