Who Tried to Kill Ali Abdullah Saleh?

The hidden feud behind the revolution in Yemen.

There aren't many foreigners traveling to Sanaa these days, but one group of outsiders is getting a lot of attention: an FBI forensics team, which reportedly arrived last week to investigate the attempted assassination of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia.

Evidence from the scene indicates that the explosion may have been caused by a device that was planted inside the mosque on the presidential compound, and not by a mortar shell or rocket, as was initially reported. If true, this means that someone with close access to the president was involved, which raises the question of why members of the Yemeni regime's inner circle -- set to mark its 33rd anniversary in power next month -- now appear intent on destroying each other?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond the protests that have called for Saleh's resignation and instead look at the premises of the political settlement that has held the inner circle together for so long.

The first spectacular rupture within the group came on March 21, when Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar publicly defected from the Saleh regime three days after snipers gunned down peaceful protesters in Sanaa, killing more than 50 people. Ali Mohsen is the country's most powerful military leader and a distant cousin of Saleh. A fight between the two men has been simmering for at least a decade; empathy for the protesters was certainly not the only factor contributing to Ali Mohsen's decision to jump ship. The rivalry between the two former allies was probably more decisive.

By joining the opposition movement, Ali Mohsen and other defectors from the regime have not necessarily heralded a new era for the Yemeni people. Instead, they appear to be settling old scores.

The inner workings of Saleh's Yemen are incredibly opaque. Think of a series of concentric circles with him at their center: That's the regime. Tightly wrapped around the president in the next circle are his close relatives (sons, nephews, half brothers, cousins, and in-laws), and slightly further away is the elite of the Sanhan tribe, to which both Saleh and Ali Mohsen belong. These three circles, consisting of perhaps 50 or so people in total, constitute the regime's inner circle. Some of its members control the country's most sensitive military positions, including those charged with counterterrorism operations in close cooperation with the United States. All have enjoyed the benefits of being deeply enmeshed in the country's formal and informal economy.

The regime has intentionally kept the names of most members of the inner circle out of the public realm, and until several years ago even Saleh's last name -- Afaash -- was treated as though it were a state secret. The likely reason: The name revealed that Saleh is not a sheikh and does not come from a respected tribal pedigree. Moreover, his name also revealed that Ali Mohsen actually sits above the president in the Sanhan tribal hierarchy.

Palace intrigues are the source of continual debate and rumor within Yemen's political classes. These debates tend not to be based on verifiable evidence, however, partly because Saleh so actively prevented the inner circle (other than a selection of his close relatives) from appearing in the media. Until only a few years ago, most Sanaa residents could easily point out Ali Mohsen's house, but most also reported never having seen a photograph of him. This was despite the long shadow that Ali Mohsen cast across Yemeni politics and the active role that was often attributed to him by local analysts and politicians.

Ali Mohsen was vital to Saleh's rise to formal power and the maintenance of his regime. In June 1978, Ahmed al-Ghashmi, president of what was then North Yemen, was assassinated, as was his predecessor eight months earlier. At that time, Maj. Ali Abdullah Saleh was the commander of the Taiz Military District, which granted him access to the Red Sea and the lucrative international smuggling opportunities that went along with it. He was the second-highest-ranking military commander from the Sanhan tribe after Mohammed Ismail al-Qadhi, who was then in the political wilderness for having supported the wrong side in the 1960s civil war.

Upon Ghashmi's assassination, Ali Mohsen managed to secure control of the Central Command Headquarters building in Sanaa. A standoff ensued for 40 days, during which time the Sanhan elite sold assets and gathered cash to purchase support from other military commanders for Saleh to capture the presidency. An agreement was settled between the Sanhan sheikhs involved in the enterprise, which was, according to a Sanhan insider, referred to as "the covenant" (al-ahd). Essentially, it contained an understanding that the Sanhan tribe would stand together under Saleh's leadership and that Ali Mohsen would be next in line to succeed Saleh as president.

The informal succession line did not extend beyond Ali Mohsen, and it is likely that, knowing the short life span of previous Yemeni presidents, the adherents to "the covenant" did not expect their leadership to last for very long. It was widely reported at the time, for example, that when Saleh took office a CIA agent in Sanaa wagered that he would not last six months. Saleh's presidency -- as well as the Sanhan ascendance -- was reasonably expected to be a short-term proposition.

The issue of political succession lay largely dormant until 1999, when Saleh began to push for a series of politically regressive constitutional amendments, one of which was an extension of the presidential term of office from five to seven years. Even though he had been in office since 1978, he was only officially elected for the first time in 1999, meaning that under the amended Constitution he could remain in office until 2013 instead of 2009. This prompted intense speculation that the extension was intended to allow the president's son Ahmed to reach age 40 -- the constitutional minimum age for a Yemeni president -- before Saleh would be compelled to retire.

Some of the elite within the president's tribe, including Ali Mohsen, were reportedly outraged at Saleh's apparent attempt to position his son to succeed him, and this sparked a major factional dispute, though not necessarily because Ali Mohsen wanted the top job for himself. One of Ali Mohsen's most powerful supporters, the commander of the Eastern Region, Qadhi, spoke out and, according to a Sanhan insider, explicitly told Saleh that he was "breaking the covenant." Very shortly after this reported conversation, Qadhi was killed in a military helicopter crash. Although the crash was officially declared an accident, many observers in Yemen saw it as the beginning of other, more subtle moves against Ali Mohsen within the military, as other officers and units loyal to him began be to removed or weakened.

At around the same time, the relationship between Saleh and the country's most prominent tribal figure, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar (the deceased patriarch of the family involved in the recent fighting, and not related to Ali Mohsen), also soured markedly. The Sanhan rivalries increased too, with insiders noting privately that Saleh and his sons and nephews attempted to undermine the influence of the Sanhan old guard using tactics of intimidation and humiliation. The families within the tribe increasingly split between two main factions: the Afaash clan (those related to Saleh) and the Qadhi clan (those related to Ali Mohsen).

Yet even though Saleh's family may try to avenge the attempt on his life, Yemen is not necessarily headed for a long civil war. Despite the situation's obvious combustibility, several factors could still help pull the country back from the brink.

First, though Saleh's son commands the Republican Guard, many of the guardsmen have family and tribal kinsmen in Ali Mohsen's 1st Armored Division and the tribes that support the Ahmar family. The relatively narrow geographical and tribal origins of these three key groups could help to at least limit the potential for resorting to deadly force over an extended period.

Second, though Yemen's famously gun-toting culture is often touted as a reason to fear civil war, it could also work the other way. Ordinary Yemenis are acutely aware that violence can spiral exponentially as a result of small miscalculations. The fact that the protesters have been resolutely nonviolent despite the regime's violence against them is just one indication of how well this is understood.

A final factor is Yemen's political and tribal culture. In tribal conflicts, the goal is less to vanquish an opponent than to demonstrate the ability to apply symbolic force in defense of one's position and then negotiate a solution in which both sides retain honor. Although this tends to lay a foundation for theatrical brinkmanship in which the cost of miscalculation is real and high, it also means that violent outbursts tend to be relatively short-lived. So far, the casualties caused by the fighting between the Ahmars and those loyal to Saleh have been less than one might expect, considering the amount of firepower used.

Yemen's modern history is full of short, sharp conflicts, but it is when outside powers have intervened, as in the 1962-1970 bloody northern civil war -- which became a proxy fight between Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- that war has become most intractable. This observation provides all the more reason to worry about the deep involvement of Saudi Arabia and the United States, with its myopic focus on fighting al Qaeda, in Yemen's crisis. Both players may be helping to set the stage for the regime's internal rivalries to explode -- with dire consequences for the Yemeni people.



The Missionary Position

Mormonism will affect the foreign policies of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman -- just not in the way you might expect.

When Joseph Smith, the religious genius and sometime-treasure hunter who founded the Mormon faith, announced in 1844 that he was running for president of the United States, international affairs were not his top priority. In a pamphlet outlining his campaign platform, Smith quoted James Madison's inaugural address declaring that he would "cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations." But he never got the chance to elaborate on his foreign policy: Later that year, while Smith was in jail awaiting trial on charges that he had ordered the destruction of an anti-Mormon newspaper, a mob of armed men stormed his cell and fatally shot him as he jumped out of the window.

On the face of it, the Mormons angling for the White House in 2012 could hardly be more different from the founder of their faith. Where Smith turned to seer stones and wildcat banking schemes to raise money, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are paragons of fiscal caution and big-business capitalism -- one a self-made millionaire, the other an heir to a billionaire's chemical fortune. Smith was a charismatic prophet who commanded his followers to accept new scriptures and doctrines, like polygamous marriage and baptism of the dead, distinguishing the Mormon faith from mainstream Christianity. Romney and Huntsman, by contrast, appear to be respectable and rule-bound to a fault.

Both have distanced themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' more idiosyncratic beliefs, and Huntsman has implied that he is no longer devout. Yet their domestic records and approaches to politics speak volumes about the Mormon worldview and what a Mormon president might mean for U.S. foreign policy. Despite the partisan rhetoric that the campaign trail may require, they are realists whose international experience and instinctive prudence would rein in their commitment to any ideological grand strategy.

Smith's risky and mercurial behavior -- and the conspiracy theories of today's most famous Mormon guru, Glenn Beck -- are exceptions in the church's history and culture, not the rule. The early Latter-day Saints (so called because they believe that Smith restored the true church in the "latter days," the last era before the Second Coming of Christ) did not build a self-sustaining empire in the Salt Lake Valley without a fair dose of caution and business sense. Some historians argue that Smith's schemes were more pragmatic than they seem: His church's survival and subsequent thriving suggest he did something right. In part, Mormons have prospered by adapting their beliefs to changing times. When doctrines like polygamous marriage and the prohibition against blacks in the Mormon priesthood became politically untenable, the LDS church denounced them: New revelations indicated God had changed his mind. Mormons' talent for careful planning and flexible strategy has contributed to the rapid growth of their church around the globe and the expanding influence of Mormons in the corridors of Washington and the business world.

This is not to say that Mormons are opportunists. On the contrary, they tend to be stalwart defenders of conservative social values and American exceptionalism. After all, the LDS church teaches that Jesus Christ appeared in America, that the true faith was restored in upstate New York when Smith uncovered the golden plates, that the Garden of Eden was in present-day Missouri -- as is the site of Christ's future Second Coming. It's no wonder that Leo Tolstoy saw in Mormons the quintessential "American religion." Today, popular culture stereotypes Mormons as teetotalers proud of their enormous families and patriotism. Rumor has it that the CIA and FBI treat the Mormon faith as a de facto background check and recruit more heavily on the campus of Brigham Young University than almost anywhere else.

Yet while America plays a prominent role in Mormon theology and history, Mormons have always been missionaries with no intention of stopping at any border. Over the past century and a half, the LDS church has become one of the most international organizations in the world. The church claims about 14 million members worldwide, more than half of whom live outside the United States. Of the 25 announced locations for new Mormon temples, 14 are abroad (most in Latin America). The church is increasingly non-American and nonwhite. That global missionary ethos has implications for how a Mormon president -- especially ex-missionaries like Romney (France) and Huntsman (Taiwan) -- would view foreign affairs.

Missions demand a paradoxical combination of ideological commitment and pragmatic flexibility. The two years (or, in the case of female missionaries, 18 months) that young Mormons are urged to devote to full-time mission work often send them overseas and leave them not only fluent in new languages and charged with a saintly esprit de corps, but sensitive to the challenges of communicating in a culture different from their own. Successful missionaries in any religion are nothing if not farsighted and practical: They are inured to doors slammed in their faces and realistic about the compromises and adjustable expectations that their work requires. Romney, for example, learned to put aside his church's disapproval of alcohol and approach patrons in French bars.

Experiences like these teach Mormons to temper the American exceptionalism inherent to their theology. Neither faith nor patriotism stopped the church-owned newspaper, Utah's Deseret News, from recently bucking the region's nativist tendencies by protesting growing hostility toward illegal immigrants (it so happens that those immigrants are a growing Mormon constituency). A similar streak of apolitical pragmatism -- and, it must be said, human compassion -- marked Romney's tenure as Massachusetts governor: He defied ideological taboos by pioneering a model for government-mandated universal healthcare. Huntsman, for his part, accepted an ambassadorial nomination from a Democratic White House, presumably because he was more interested in representing American interests in China than in toeing a strict party line.

But these candidates' preference for pragmatism over politics seems to cut little ice with the Republican faithful. Many evangelical Christians, in particular, view the Mormon faith as a non-Christian cult. When Romney first ran for the country's highest office four years ago, he tried to quiet rumors that a Mormon president would be the puppet of the church hierarchy in Salt Lake City or that a Mormon is too "weird" to be president. "We share a common creed of moral convictions," he told an audience at Texas A&M University. (Never mind that shared morals do not mean shared doctrine: Yes, the LDS church seems to focus more on outward obedience than on theological details, but the faith's fundamental tenets include some very distinctive ideas. For starters, Smith taught that God is an "exalted man" of flesh and bone and that humans themselves can ascend to godhood, while the Book of Mormon describes Christ's visit to the Americas after his resurrection -- notions that would make most Christians blanch.)

Given the lingering suspicions of such a core Republican constituency, it should come as no surprise that Romney has given his 2012 campaign, including his foreign policy, a partisan makeover. His hawkish manifesto, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, opens with an epigraph from Dwight Eisenhower, but the main tone of the prose is pure Ronald Reagan: Romney calls the Gipper "brilliant" and declares that "history proved Reagan right," an exemplar that the next president ought to bear in mind if America is to remain "the leading nation in the world." (The LDS church, incidentally, considers Reagan a "true friend": His administration employed at least 14 Mormons in prominent roles.)

No Apology tries to dispel the notion that Romney is a technocrat without the guts to defend America's superpower clout (though, with graphs of home prices and test scores, the book hardly hides his wonkishness under a bushel). He writes that unless Washington reverses the country's economic downturn and ramps up defense spending and war on fundamentalist Islam, America faces a terrifying fate: "I suspect the United States will become the France of the twenty-first century -- still a great country, but no longer the world's leading nation." The thought of middling-power status and Gallic godlessness may give Romney a special fright: During the late 1960s, he served as a missionary in France, where student riots and Sartre-style atheism may have hardened his conservative views.

None of this is to say that Romney won't follow through on his pledges to expand America's armed forces if he is elected. However, his current foreign-policy fulminations are probably as much an effort to find daylight between himself and Barack Obama as they are a reliable indication that he would pursue another round of ill-conceived, George W. Bush-style wars of ideology. Likewise, Huntsman may warn that U.S. troops are "deployed in some quarters in this world where we don't need to be," but his criticisms of mission creep in Afghanistan and military action in Libya are unlikely to translate into a White House staffed with America-firsters.

In the end, however, the main problem facing 2012's Mormon candidates is not mainstream America's suspicion of their faith, but the fact that ideology has increasingly polarized voters -- and voters seem to enjoy the rancor. Detailed PowerPoint presentations rarely win primaries. And in these dark days of economic woe, when Americans are feeling impatient and desperate, voters are especially liable to be attracted to heated, rather than sober, arguments. Americans may simply be too committed to the religions of red and blue to heed the gospel of pragmatism.

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