By Ahmed Al-Haj and Aya Batrawy / AP
SANAA: It was a stunning attack by Al-Qaeda in a country that is one of the world’s hottest fronts against the terror group. Insurgents rampaged through an army camp in southern Yemen before dawn, catching soldiers asleep and killing more than 180. Amid the turmoil, the defense minister ordered helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
The air force commander, Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmar, refused, according to a senior official at the main air force base in Sanaa.
Notably, Al-Ahmar is a half brother of ousted leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Many in the military and government say the refusal last week is one example of how Saleh is working behind the scenes to obstruct the new US-backed government as it tries to bring reform and step up the fight against Al-Qaeda insurgents in this impoverished Arab nation.
Saleh was the fourth ruler to fall in the Arab Spring wave of revolts in the Mideast, stepping down in the face of protests after more than three decades in power. But while he’s no longer president, he has effectively emerged as a parallel ruler: His loyalists and relatives still pervade state bodies and military, and officials who back the new government say he uses those levers to persistently undermine them.
The goal, they fear, is to pave the way for Saleh to return to power by showing the new government is incapable of dealing with the country’s multiple problems. Saleh has set up an office in the giant, extravagant Sanaa mosque that he built during his rule and that bears his name, just around the corner from the presidential palace. There he meets with his loyalists and powerful tribal leaders who back him.
The result is constant friction between Saleh’s supporters and the new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The Americans hope Hadi can reinvigorate the fight against Al-Qaeda, which many Yemenis say Saleh’s military waged only halfheartedly.
Al-Qaeda’s branch here is seen by Washington as the most dangerous arm of the terror group after repeated attempts to carry out bombings on American soil. It only grew stronger during the past year’s turmoil, when insurgents seized control of several towns in the south, including Zinjibar, a provincial capital.
US officials say the Pentagon plans to assist Hadi with about $75 million for military training and equipment. After talks in Sanaa last month, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said Hadi was “committed to destroying Al-Qaeda.”
But Brennan acknowledged Hadi could face resistance in reforming an army that is seen as hobbled by corruption and divided loyalties. He said some in the military “have tried to take advantage of their positions for personal gain.”
Restructuring the military, he told reporters, “threatens their personal interests.”
One of Hadi’s first acts after being sworn in Feb. 25 was to order the removal of the top military commander in the south, Gen. Mahdi Maqoula, a Saleh loyalist. Officers complained that Maqoula was hindering supplies to forces fighting insurgents.
But Maqoula remained in his position for another week, several military officials in the south said. During that week, ammunition and weapons
from a military storehouse in the south disappeared, apparently smuggled out and sold, the officials said. A supply of sophisticated sniper scopes vanished, they said, blaming Maqoula and his fellow officers for the theft.
The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Maqoula finally left his post on March 4. Hours before he stepped down, a force of Al-Qaeda fighters carried out the surprise, pre-dawn attack on the army camp. The fighters sprayed tents where soldiers were sleeping with gunfire and killed at least 185. They dumped their bodies in the desert, some beheaded, and paraded dozens of captured soldiers through a nearby town.
The massacre fueled accusations that Saleh loyalists in the military have been unwilling to fight insurgents — or even have colluded with them.
The replacement of Maqoula does appear to have brought progress in the fight. A series of airstrikes hit militant positions since Friday. Yemeni military officials say the strikes were carried out by the United States and say they reflect improved communication and intelligence under the new commander, Maj. Gen. Salem Katton. American officials have not confirmed any US role in the strikes.
But security and military officials say Saleh supporters in the Interior Ministry still impede the flow of security information to higher-ups in Hadi’s government, including information on Al-Qaeda insurgents. They like other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
After nearly a year of protests against his authoritarian rule, Saleh handed over his powers in November to Hadi, his vice president, under a US-backed agreement. Saleh left the country for medical treatment in the US, raising opponents’ hopes he would live in exile. The prime minister appointed by Hadi, Mohammed Basindwa, pleaded with Brennan to ensure Saleh stayed out, warning his return “means another war.”
But days after Hadi was elevated to president in February elections, Saleh returned and vowed to remain involved in politics as an “opposition leader.”
Now authority is divided.
Members of Saleh’s National Congress Party remain in ministerial posts in the unity government. Saleh’s son, Ahmed, heads both the powerful Republican Guard and special counterterrorism forces. One of Saleh’s nephews, Yahia, heads the Central Security forces, and another nephew, Ammar, is the intelligence chief. Saleh supporters control the government Al-Thawra newspaper and others have resisted efforts to restructure state television, giving the ex-president a powerful platform.
“Our people will remain present in every institution,” Saleh proclaimed Saturday in a speech from his mosque. “Two months have passed since this creation of this weak government, which doesn’t know the ABCs of politics. It won’t be able to build a thing or put one brick on top of another.”
Basindwa has complained to Hadi that Saleh loyalists in ministries block orders from his government, an official in Basindwa’s office said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal workings.
On Monday, tribal fighters tried to storm the Finance Ministry, angered because the ministry cut off funds that Saleh had been funneling to the tribe’s leader, according to a ministry official.
The next day, traffic police barricaded their headquarters to prevent a new chief of Sanaa’s traffic police from entering his office. The chief had been named to replace a Saleh loyalist.
Political expert Abdel-Bari Taher says Saleh wants to show Yemenis and the United States that without him, the government will fail and security will spiral out of control.
“This is his attempt to tell the opposition that he is still present and send a message to the United States that they lost an ally who could secure the country,” said Taher, who works at a government think tank.