Dispatch

Whose Side Is Yemen On?

Ali Abdullah Saleh's government colluded with al Qaeda and duped the West. Has anything changed since his ouster?

SANAA, Yemen — In the crowded Shumaila market in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, on May 28, 2005, Faysal Abdulaziz al-Arifi took a few trembling steps past buzzing stalls and garbage quickly accumulating on the street's edge.

Nasr al-Faqih, a police officer in the market, noticed Arifi's nervous looks and approached him. Faqih tried to get close to him, but Arifi pulled away. When the policeman asked him why, Arifi whispered, "I can't tell you on the street. The cell is watching me."

Under interrogation, Arifi confessed that he had been on his way to the central United Nations office in Sanaa, where he had been ordered to detonate an explosives belt hidden under his clothes -- a belt his mother had fastened to his body. But the teenager admitted that he was not ready to die and went looking for somewhere to turn himself in.

This story was related by Abdu al-Faqih, Nasr's brother and an officer in Yemen's Defense Ministry. According to Abdu, however, there was an even more disturbing twist to the young man's suicide mission: The cell he claimed was watching him was an al Qaeda unit operating in the capital whose membership included officers from the elite Republican Guard, Central Security forces, and the army's 1st Armored Division.

The response from authorities when Faqih reported his capture of a suicide bomber targeting the United Nations was negligible, according to Abdu, who has followed his brother's case closely. Officers in the security apparatuses refused to take Faqih's report seriously and ignored claims of al Qaeda infiltration into the ranks of Yemen's armed forces.

Months later, the attacks began. First, a gang attacked Faqih with a dagger as he left a Sanaa restaurant. Then men fired at him on his way home from duty. Finally, returning to Sanaa from his home village on a snaking mountain highway, Faqih's taxi was pushed off the road by a pursuing Hilux pickup truck. Faqih's vehicle overturned, and he lost his right eye and suffered a crushed jaw in the crash.

Yemen's Interior Ministry refused to pay for treatment of Faqih's injuries. Sanaa's prosecution court never published the findings of its investigations of the attempts on Faqih's life, and when his family pressed them for information, they were met with a firm response: His case had been closed.

Abdu is convinced of the complicity of the Yemeni security apparatuses in the attempts on his brother's life. "I accuse members of al Qaeda and their operatives inside the security organizations of being behind the assassination attempts," he seethed, looking over a pile of his brother's records in a living room in Sanaa's Old City. He pointed to the traffic report of his brother's accident, which states that Faqih sustained only basic injuries despite his now permanent disabilities, which Abdu believes is a sign that authorities wanted to keep the accident as low profile as possible by minimizing the damage.

Abdu also emphasized that though the previous and current attorney generals, as well as Gen. Fadhal al-Qawsi, commander of the Central Security forces, issued orders to carry out a full investigation of the attempts on Faqih's life, his case remained untouched.

Faqih, feeling himself under threat and believing the justice system was unable to protect him, fled to Cairo and has refused to speak on his case. Abdu says his brother "is afraid his family in Yemen will be knocked off" if he makes noise about his case, or government collusion with terrorists.

Foreign Policy contacted Yemeni Interior Minister Abdul Qadir Qahtan for comment on Faqih's case and accusations of government cooperation with al Qaeda. He refused to respond to the allegations.

Faqih is just one of the many Yemenis who have come to suspect that their government is not fighting, but helping cultivate, jihadi activity in their country. According to sources in Yemen's Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry, as well as independent Yemeni analysts and journalists with intimate knowledge of al Qaeda in Yemen, the Yemeni government is fully aware of a number of al Qaeda cells -- and their existence is tolerated and their crimes covered up.

It's a richly ironic development. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down in February after a year of mass protests, was lauded by U.S. officials as a valuable partner in the war on terror. In a WikiLeaked 2009 State Department cable, Saleh "insisted that Yemen's national territory is available for unilateral CT [counterterrorism] operations by the U.S." According to another cable, Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of U.S. Central Command, that when it came to U.S. missile strikes on Yemeni soil, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." For Saleh's cooperation, Washington showered him with political and financial support.

Abdulghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst, has asserted that Saleh manipulated the terrorist threat in Yemen to extract support from the United States. "At all levels of Yemen's political elite you have collusion and cooperation with militants and terrorists," he told Foreign Policy.

The collusion reaches beyond Saleh's presidential circle, Iryani pointed out. Iryani claimed that Yemen's Political Security Organization (PSO), the government's most powerful internal security apparatus, is deeply connected to al Qaeda -- aware of its movements but never taking action unless forced to do so by public events. "Safe houses for al Qaeda leaders in Sanaa were provided by the PSO," he said. "When the attack on the British ambassador to Yemen occurred [in April 2010], the PSO went out to neighborhoods in Sanaa around the British and American embassies and arrested several dozen al Qaeda activists that same day. The PSO knew where they were."

Others working in Yemen's security organizations have come forward to describe their experiences with government collusion with al Qaeda up close.

Sitting cross-legged in a locked room in his tiny cement house on a mountaintop overlooking Sanaa, an officer in Yemen's Interior Ministry, speaking to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, described how he apprehended a young man in the capital's Hayy Siasi neighborhood in 2008 for his involvement in a gunfight. The officer said they found pictures on the youth's mobile phone of him training with other militants in what looked like Hadramout, a governorate in the distant east of the country. During questioning, the officer said, it came out that the young man was a member of al Qaeda.

"He [the young man under arrest] let slip that he'd been imprisoned by the Political Security before, but had been released, telling us that he was in touch with the chief of Political Security [Ghalib al-Qamish]," the officer said. With growing unease, he went on. "I told him that if he was really in touch with Qamish, why didn't he call him? He did, and Qamish got extremely angry, asking him, 'Why are you talking about me in front of them?!' and hung up. But, a half-hour later, orders came from the ministry to release him."

The release of terrorism suspects has a long history in Yemen. The 2006 prison break of 23 militants from Sanaa's Political Security prison was one of the most notorious escapes in Yemen's history, setting a number of dangerous al Qaeda operatives free again, including several who had participated in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.

According to some observers, it had to be an inside job. The prison is an imposing fortress in the heart of Sanaa, with plainclothes soldiers patrolling its perimeter. Inmates' spare cells -- only plastic silverware is allowed in -- are inspected several times a day. Prisoners are only allowed a half-hour a day outdoors, according to Muhammed Ghazwan, a Yemeni journalist with the local Shari newspaper, who was imprisoned there.

Muhsin Khosroof, a retired colonel and frequent commentator on Yemeni affairs, said that prisoners who escaped dug a tunnel to a mosque near the prison: "We don't know how they got the tools to dig a 300-meter tunnel, and we don't know where the soil they dug out went." Without the acquiescence of prison officials, he said, "this operation would seem impossible."

Khosroof thinks prison breaks aren't the only thing demonstrating collusion on the part of Yemeni officials with terrorists. The full-scale occupation of areas of southern Yemen by a local arm of al Qaeda calling itself Ansar al-Sharia during last year's uprising against Saleh, he thinks, would not have been possible without help from elements in the armed forces. According to Khosroof, the militants' success was simply too rapid to explain otherwise.

"No more than 400 al Qaeda fighters were able to occupy an entire governorate, which had several military detachments and special anti-terrorism teams trained by the Americans," he said. "All of these soldiers did nothing to confront 400 fighters, who occupied all of Abyan governorate and half of Shabwa governorate [both in Yemen's south]."

Ansar al-Sharia briefly took control of Ridaa, a city in Bayda governorate, for a few days in January, terrifying onlookers with the prospect that the group would move on the capital only 80 miles distant. Khosroof believes that Ridaa's capture was a maneuver orchestrated to make Yemenis cry out to the ailing Saleh regime for protection. "No battle occurred. Is this not evidence?" He asked. "No confrontation. The Republican Guard, the armed forces are supposed to stop them [Ansar al-Sharia]. No one confronted them, and they entered in peace."

President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, Saleh's successor and former vice president, has embarked on a high-profile campaign to wrest control of southern Yemen from al Qaeda. But suspicions run high that Yemen's current government is still covering for the terrorist organization. Ghazwan, who specializes in al Qaeda and military affairs, argued that militants escaped Hadi's offensive largely unscathed primarily with the help of top military leaders. "During the latest war, al Qaeda was able to reproduce itself through relationships with top military leaders," he said.

When the Yemeni military took the southern cities of Zinjibar and Jaar in its lightning campaign in June, Ansar al-Sharia beat a hasty retreat to the port city of Shaqra. When the army moved on Shaqra, the organization was able to regroup with all its heavy weaponry in the remote stronghold area of Mehfid, where it remains today -- and which will likely be the staging ground for even larger battles, Ghazwan noted.

Ghazwan said that a special unit cobbled together from local tribesman and military personnel had been formed with the purpose of defending an area called the Khubr Triangle, which lies between Shaqra and Mehfid. The unit was supposed to intercept Ansar al-Sharia on the al Qaeda offshoot's way to Mehfid. Yet, the unit's leader told Ghazwan that when the battle came, Military Operations ordered him not to intercept al Qaeda.

"Orders came at the time of the battle saying, 'This brigade should not move to Khubr.' And they stayed where they were for two days. And Ansar al-Sharia was able to move all of its heavy equipment to Mehfid," Ghazwan said.

"When you call mid-ranking military officials and speak to them on this issue," Ghazwan pointed out, "they tell you, 'We don't know who's behind this. Orders came from Military Operations not to move.' This indicates that al Qaeda has its hands in the highest ranks of military leadership who make the decisions."

Asked whether this oversight could have been because the officer who gave the orders had made a tactical error or was unaware of Ansar al-Sharia's movements, Ghazwan scoffed: "If that were true, then that too would be a huge problem, because commanders are supposed to be military experts, not ignorant of the enemy's movements." Solemnly, he added, "They [military leaders] gave life to al Qaeda once more. It had been on the verge of death."

As for why elements inside the Yemeni government would cooperate with or encourage al Qaeda's activities, the benefit is clear. The United States backed Saleh's regime with millions of dollars of assistance for his counterterrorism operations -- and it now backs the Hadi government in the hope that it can eradicate the terrorist threat and stabilize Yemen. But elements in the government have an incentive to keep the pot boiling: The greater al Qaeda's profile in Yemen, the more U.S. dollars flow to Yemeni government coffers. And with the country's history of rampant corruption, it should shock no one if much of that foreign assistance finds its way into politicians' pockets.

To the Interior Ministry officer, this couldn't be clearer. "The authorities get support from outside powers, like the U.S. They catch them [al Qaeda operatives] and then let them go to do other operations in order to extort support from other countries," he said matter-of-factly.

Ghazwan had a more nuanced view. "The issue is that those who collude with al Qaeda are not low- or mid-level officers. Those officers don't cooperate with al Qaeda," he said. "It's the highest-level leaders, who don't actually believe in the preachings of Ansar al-Sharia, but who manipulate them to remain in the government or bring a particular party to power."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Magical Thinking

A rare look inside Swaziland's mysterious annual kingship ceremony and brewing protest movement.

MBABANE, Swaziland – King Mswati III, one of the world's last absolute monarchs, is a powerful man -- precisely because many think he isn't a man at all.  

"He believes he is divine, believes he is magic," his former speechwriter, Musa Ndlangamandla, told me one evening. "And so do his people."

The paunchy young king, typically sporting a goatee and traditional Swazi garb, has made himself one of the richest royals in the world by controlling an estimated 50 percent of the economy. His Swazi kingdom is a tiny, mountainous region between South Africa and Mozambique, but there's still big business: it's home to a Coca-Cola concentrate-manufacturing plant (the company's biggest on the continent), a new iron-ore reprocessing plant, and one of the largest man-made forests in the world. Over all this lords Mswati III, but for one month a year, he has different business to attend to.  

Last winter, a few weeks after I arrived in Swaziland to study traditional healers, the country shut down for the month-long witchcraft and kingship ceremony known as Incwala. The annual event is taken very seriously. Shops close, police take off work, and warriors camp outside the king's palace while he goes into seclusion to perform elaborate rites -- eating traditional herbs, dancing -- under the supervision of inyangas, or witch doctors. A month later, he emerges from Incwala invincible, cleansed from the past year, and reaffirmed of his divinity. Many Swazis call Incwala "our national prayer month" -- the deity being Mswati III.

Some people -- including U.S. diplomats and even the king's former speechwriter -- are beginning to suggest that King Mswati's belief in his own divinity blurs his vision. In a 2010 cable obtained by WikiLeaks, the U.S. embassy in Swaziland, citing a local businessman, described the king as "imbalanced" and heavily influenced by "witchcraft."

While traditional culture ought to be celebrated, the stakes of Mswati's mental balance are high. For Swazi women ages 30 to 34, the HIV rate is 54 percent, the highest in the world. Life expectancy fell from 61 years in 2000 to 32 years in 2009.

Belief in his own divinity may allow Mswati to disconnect himself from these realities. In April of last year, he stirred anger by demanding cows and presents from his impoverished subjects to accompany government funding for his $652,000 40th birthday party (70 percent of the country lives on less than two dollars a day, and yet the royals are wealthy enough to skew World Bank statistics, making it seem a lot less bad.) In May, he flew to England for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and let one of his 13 wives spend $60,000 at a South African hotel. Such decadence shouldn't be significant, but it becomes so when such a tiny and ailing populace must shoulder it. Later that month, the International Monetary Fund pulled an advisory team out of the country because it did not have faith in the government's commitment to rein in spending (not surprising when the government spends 17 percent of its budget on unnecessary security, funds lavish royal birthday parties, and then asks for loans).

"The rest of the world keeps saying we should have democracy, and we agree," Vusie Majola, who runs a nonprofit, said. "But what they don't understand is that the king, he can point a stick at you and you die. We are dealing with someone whose power the world can't understand."

Swazis fear the king and fervently believe in his power. Their reverence for Mswati is, to a foreigner, jarring.

I wanted to see the ceremonies for myself, and so I bought a traditional Swazi dress from Mr. Cheapies, a crowded fabric shop in downtown Mbabane, and hopped in my Toyota SUV to drive to the palace. Everyone, Swazis and expats alike, said I couldn't go -- that the Incwala was too tightly guarded and that I ought to wait until the big tourist-friendly dance that marked the public-facing end of the festivities. But I didn't have a day job at the time, and trying to break into Incwala seemed as good an activity as any. I showed up at the palace gates and offered the guards some chocolates. Spinning their AK47s, they asked if I was a virgin (only virgin girls can enter the barracks where the Incwala warriors stay) and let me in.

Through the gates, I drove by a field of makeshift tents -- nothing more than torn blue tarps roped around trees -- and police officers napping on blankets spread across the browning lawn. I passed the barracks, a cluster of thick-walled beehive houses made of long, bent branches, and arrived at the palace. Inside the low-lying whitewashed complex was a minister, Thandiso, eating biltong (dried meat) with his two wives.

"The king's just right in there," Thandiso explained, pointing to some buildings within the complex. "In isolation with his maidens. And the inyangas."

Thandiso's leopard loincloth cut tight into his belly as he led me back out to the barracks and introduced me to the warriors and princes. This sort of access was remarkable, I was later told -- a tribute more to Swazi curiosity and friendliness than any skill on my part (though it might have helped that I said I was open to the idea of a Swazi husband). The king's young son, silent and confident, crossed his arms and waited for one of the soldiers to dress him. I saw the marks of fresh muti, or witch magic, everywhere. The warriors had thin scabs up and down their arms where they had rubbed herbs into their blood, and brightly colored strings around their necks for protection. I also saw the marks of untreated HIV. Police uniforms hung loose, decorating the sagging shoulders of emaciated captains.

After a few hours of watching a boy's induction into one of the regiments, I heard the high-pitch blare of police escorts. The royal coterie of wives, cousins, and attachés arrived -- an intimidating parade of armored BMWs and security forces. They emerged from the vehicles in stilettos, sunglasses, and leopard-skin cloths and paraded past the three regiments of Swaziland (soldiers, police officers, and traditional warriors) onto the palace's the main dancing field. There, with the regiments, they formed an enormous circle, danced a slow dance, and sung a quiet, repetitive chant for two hours (King Sobhuza II sang the same ancient war song, Inqaba Kanqofula, when Swaziland achieved independence from the British). When the dance concluded, the royals got back in their cars and the regiments returned to their barracks and tents. 

I returned to Incwala every day for a week and got to know the royal healers -- quiet, deeply feared figures who stay near the palace while the king is in isolation. These are not the herb-collecting healers you call to cure a stomach ache but rather the ones you summon for luck and power, the ones who deal in animal parts, the ones albinos fear because their speckled white flesh is considered magic. The healers themselves are constantly poisoning one another in Mswati's competitive royal court. I caught up with one, Mabuzo, in northern Swaziland after he ran away from the palace.

"Mswati is not like his father [the revered Sobhuza II, who expelled the British from Swaziland]," he told me. "They all used us, but you only go to Mswati if you want to die. If one healer thinks you are becoming too powerful, he will kill you." When I asked if Mswati used human parts as muti, Mabuzo got very quiet and whispered something to my translator who smiled and winced. The interview was over.

The last night of Incwala, after the tourists left and the gates closed, I met Sydney (many Swazis go by Anglicized names), one of the king's personal guards. He was standing at the entrance to Mswati's Incwala kraal, or cow pen, made of thin 20-foot-high logs and covered by a layer of branches. The king was inside.

Sydney was a lean young man with a clean face. He stepped closer to me, and I smelled the cow's blood before I noticed that it drenched the pants and shirt of his uniform.

He informed me that I couldn't explore the kraal. Earlier, I'd been told that if a girl enters the king's kraal she'll have her period for the rest of her life, which I didn't dare risk. Still, I asked Sydney why I couldn't just look.

"You don't understand," he said, cradling his AK-47, "no one can go in there now.... Not even me. In there is the king, the bulls, a very few warriors and," he pauses, "and the inyangas."

I'd seen a dozen bulls enter the kraal minutes ago but couldn't hear anything inside save for chanting -- a soft shush-shush-shush.

"Are you a Christian?" asked Sydney. "I am a Christian," he said. "And I hate what is happening in there."

The secret ceremonies of Incwala are steeped in mystery. But on Nov. 28, 2011, Pius "unSwazi" Rinto (aka Pius Vilakati), the founder and spokesperson of the banned Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), released a document that contained a Swazi man's alleged confessions about the true nature of the ceremony.

The SSN, which coordinates democracy campaigns from South Africa, claimed that the report came from a former member of the Royal Army who had defected to the democracy movement. The report was picked up by major news organizations, even making it into the New York Times.

It contained a number of well-known facts about Incwala -- royal advisors spend the month wandering Swaziland and fining people for violating traditional codes (women wearing pants are commonly apprehended), bulls are killed, young (ideally virgin) boys move onto the palace lawns (80,000 came this year, and all received new sneakers).

But the document included some strange revelations as well, which are harder to verify.

The author claimed that a snake licks the king all over his body -- and quite a bit more. In December, the Johannesburg-based Southern African Report summarized the report as follows:

Among [Incwala's] highlights is a symbolic demonstration by the king of his power and dominance in a process involving his penetration of a black bull, beaten into semi-conscious immobility to ensure its compliant acceptance of the royal touch. The royal semen is then collected by a courtier and stored, for subsequent inclusion in food to be served at Sibaya -- traditional councils -- and other national forums.

Afterward, the document claims, Mswati has public sex with two of his wives, ejaculating into a horn like he did after engaging in intercourse with the bull. Then a bucket of water is poured on his head and he washes himself on the women. These wives are the sesulamsiti, which means, per Sydney's translation, "after I dirty I must clean my hands." They are used only for traditions and are not allowed to get pregnant.

Whether this account is true or not -- some people I met swore its veracity, others scoffed when I brought it up -- is irrelevant. What's more interesting is the reaction to the account in Swaziland.

The kingdom's most prevalent religion is Zionism, a precarious balance of Christianity and traditional beliefs. Several Zionist pastors have declared Incwala evil -- a lurch too far toward the pagan. The Times of Swaziland, a paper owned by a white Swazi named Paul Loffler who allows the editorial team to function freely, ran weeks of letters to the editor calling for boycotts of Incwala and for parents to bring their sons back from the palace.

Mswati made some attempts to punish the critics, though they were largely futile. The royal newspaper -- the Swazi Observer -- asked if anyone had information that could help the police arrest those individuals who "distributed pamphlets containing malicious and misleading fabrications aimed at tarnishing the country's customs and traditions," citing laws banning defamation of the king. Yet no culprit was caught. One man was arrested for selling G-rated video recordings of last year's Incwala and asked to get each one back -- an impossible task. Journalists and photographers -- even Swazi nationals -- were banned from all the Incwala events. The only news outlet permitted to cover the last day of the festival was Swazi TV, the king's propaganda station. Yet I managed without any trouble to bring a video camera into the event. A couple of months ago, the government announced a new lèse majesté law that will make insulting the king via social media sites a crime. But again, enforcing this law might be difficult.

The account of Incwala published by Pius "unSwazi" Rinto isn't the only source of anxiety about witchcraft influencing Mswati. In 2011, WikiLeaks released a cable from U.S. Ambassador Earl Irving entitled, "Witchcraft and More: A Portrait of Influences On King Mswati III." In a kingdom of 1.4 million people, where U.S. embassy officials and Swazi royalty basically all go to one of two real restaurants, comments by U.S. Ambassador Irving made for a very awkward morning after and a public relations nightmare for the embassy.

"What we can say with confidence," Irving concluded in the cable, "is that shamanism pervades Swazi culture, and even the king, who is above the law and constitution of Swaziland and ostensibly a Christian, is not exempted from its grip."

The cable quoted Mandla Hlatshwayo, a former Mswati advisor and sugar company CEO, as telling U.S. officials that the king regards any attempts to use muti to attack him seriously. Hlatshwayo, who later founded the People's United Democratic Movement, the kingdom's banned opposition party, has gone into self-imposed exile in South Africa.

"They want me dead," Hlatshwayo titled his Swazi Observer column in October 2011, shortly after the cable was released. Since 2008, he wrote, he'd been hearing rumors that authorities wanted to assassinate him.

Swaziland's four-decade "state of emergency" -- the world's longest -- gives the king absolute power to punish dissent. And yet there is a quiet, watchful protest movement brewing.

One day during Incwala, I took an afternoon off to meet the nation's foremost democracy activists. Majola, the Swazi nonprofit manager, led me to a meeting in a large, old building in downtown Manzini. There around a dusty, wooden conference table in a dimly lit room, I listened as they planned a teacher's union strike, debated whether to merge with another union group, and discussed how many lawyers might actually show up to a march. Afterwards, in the lobby outside, their conversation turned to Mswati's power.

The king "can turn into a cat or an ant," Majola said quietly. "He can be invisible right next to us right now. I have had friends die this way."

Majola is a large, intelligent businessman with a degree in systems management from a South African university.

"Swazis have a secret you cannot beat," Majola observed. "They believe in God. But they also believe in the ancestors. The ancestors make the king as powerful as a god."

"I had a friend, one of us [in the democracy movement], and he entered the royal grounds wanting to discuss the labor movement," said one short man with a silver tooth. "Walking out of the palace he looked weak. He died two weeks later."

"You know what happens," added a young man in a New York Yankees T-shirt. "The king had his inyangas sprinkle a circle of powder around the palace. You cross that line and you die."

Come now, I said, you're all smart and youthful and fighting for democracy. You can't believe King Mswati is really a god.

The young man in the Yankees shirt shook his head. "This is why the revolution in Swaziland will be so hard," he said. "Maybe impossible."

WALTER DHLADHLA/AFP/Getty Images