Tribal kidnapping in Yemen is a cultural phenomenon that has been practiced for centuries, said Juergen Chrobog, a former top German diplomat who was abducted during a 2005 Christmas holiday with his family in Yemen.
Kidnappers use hostages as bargaining chips to extract government concessions for infrastructural projects, such as building paved roads and schools. Or rebel groups might also seek the release of tribal members imprisoned by the ruling elite.
But hostages are generally released after their demands have been met and are treated well in captivity, Chrobog told Deutsche Welle.
“Our kidnappers treated us as guests,” said Chrobog, who had also once served as German ambassador to the United States, adding that the Bedouin captors initially had no idea who he was.
Killing hostages is unprecedented in Yemen
Tribal captors treated the Chrobog family as “guests”
But Westerners have never been captured to be killed without any demands. That makes last Friday’s abduction of nine foreign residents in the Saada region, a mountainous range close to the Saudi border, a tragic anomaly.
Yemeni authorities had confirmed the deaths of two German women and a South Korean teacher on Monday. The German foreign ministry then sent a forensic team to identify the remains of the two Germans. Early on Thursday, a ministry spokesman told German media that one of the dead women had been positively identified as a nurse who worked in war-torn Saada for the Dutch-based relief agency Worldwide Services (WWS).
The other six who are missing include a German couple, their three young children and a British engineer. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced on Tuesday in Berlin that no trace of the missing Germans could be found, but “we have to assume that they are in the hands of violent criminals”.
Yemeni government fingers Houthi rebels
The Yemeni government initially blamed the Houthi rebels who operate in the northern Saada terrain for the killings, an accusation that the Shiite group has vehemently denied. The bodies of the three women had been riddled with bullets, according to WWS.
“The Houthis do not use this kind of violence against Western targets, in spite of their anti-Western rhetoric,” said Laurent Bonnefoy, a Middle East specialist at the University of Aix-en-Provence.
Korean tourists were killed in “Chicago of the desert”
“This is the first time since 1998 that a kidnapping has ended tragically,” he said.
Bonnefoy was referring to a 1998 incident that became known as the Captain Hook rescue mission when three Britons and an Australian were accidently killed in the crossfire between rebel tribesmen and Yemeni security forces trying to secure their release.
Al Qaeda linked to kidnappings and deaths
So far no one has come forward to claim responsibility for the three Saada deaths, but the modus operandi is much more suggestive of Sunni extremists than the Houthi rebels, confirming fears of an al-Qaeda resurgence in Yemen, said Christopher Boucek, a Middle East terrorism expert at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington.
“The (Western) fear is that Yemen will be devolved, become a failed state and that al Qaeda would operate in that vacuum to stage terrorist attacks,” said Boucek. In January this year, the al-Qaeda base in Saudi Arabia merged with Yemeni’s local al-Qaeda franchise, giving weight to fears that more terrorism would emerge from the Arabian Peninsula.
“This kidnapping was the first time that hostages were killed straight away and it is a worrisome development,” he said.
History of attacks on Westerners
Yemen is running out of oil, and even worse, water.
However direct attacks that target tourists, aid workers and Western interests that bear the imprint of al-Qaeda militancy are nothing new in Yemen, he added.
The first wave of attacks began with the October 2000 suicide bombing of the American naval destroyer USS Cole at the Yemeni Port of Aden that killed 17 marines. This was followed by a huge explosive attack that left a French super-tanker blazing off the Yemeni coast two years later.
Last year in September, a deadly explosion at the US embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a killed 16 people, although none of the dead were Americans. More recently in March, four South Korean tourists travelling in the ancient walled city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site in eastern Yemen that is dubbed the “Chicago of the desert”, were killed by a teenage suicide bomber who took their photo.
“Yemen could become a haven for al Qaeda, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to implode like Afghanistan,” said Boucek.
Poverty in Yemen
The Arab world’s poorest country has even more pressing problems than just reining in terrorism. Poverty allows terrorism to flourish, said Middle East expert Bonnefoy.
“The international community should focus more on development in Yemen. Westerners are mainly concerned about the threat of terrorism and security issues, often forgetting that Yemen is confronted with a wide range of crises,” he said.
For a country that relies on oil for 80% of its export earnings, production is now down to only 280,000 barrels a day or less. In comparison Saudi Arabia produces at least nine million barrels a day.
Running out of oil and water
What kind of future do these Yemeni youngsters face?
“Yemen is running out of oil,” said Carnegie’s Boucek.
“The country suffers from endemic social and economic problems – a high rate of malnutrition, lack of public health and education, children don’t get vaccinated, there’s war between the government and rebels in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and the country is running out of water,” he added.
“The economy is in a terrible state and there is not a lot the West can do to help,” said former diplomat Chrobog, who pointed out that the danger of water depletion is one of Yemen’s most severe problems.
The cultivation of green shrubs that produce qat, a narcotic leaf that millions of Yemenis are addicted to chewing, drains the country’s very limited groundwater resources.
“This is not just a big economic problem, but an internal, social problem that the West cannot do anything about,” he said.
Pumping billions more into financial assistance and development aid could help alleviate poverty, but the aid needs to be properly managed in a country where political patronage and corruption is so endemic, say the experts.
One outcome of the past weekend’s brutal slayings, is that world attention is now being diverted to Yemen again, because of an apparent terrorist act. “The threat of terrorism is why Western governments care about Yemen,” said Boncek.
Author: Diana Fong
Editor: Rob Mudge
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