The underwear bomber and detonating Yemen

With Yemen the latest target, Eddie Ford looks at the bankruptcy of the 'war on terror'

After the attempted Christmas Day bombing of transatlantic flight 253 to Detroit, western leaders are now planning to escalate the ‘war on terror’ - or at least markedly step up the rhetoric. This new drive to increase the scope of operations, or win the unwinnable, was given extra impetus by the fact that the failed bomber, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, had extensive links with Yemen. Indeed, by all accounts, during his recent stay in that country he had been yet further ‘radicalised’ and trained - to some degree or another - in military-terrorist warfare.

So on December 25 Mutallab tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underpants, thus earning himself the title of the ‘underwear bomber’. However, his fellow passengers noticed him behaving suspiciously and when he returned from a 20-minute visit to the toilet covered in a blanket, they bravely tackled and overwhelmed Mutallab upon smelling a foul odour and noticing that his trouser leg was catching fire. Afterwards, Mutallab told the authorities that he had obtained the (rather amateurish) explosive device in Yemen - along with instructions from the local al Qa’eda network on how to use it.

In turn, the official al Qa’eda ‘franchise’ in Yemen immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, describing it as “revenge” for the US role supporting the Yemeni government’s military offensive against al Qa’eda forces. Of course, the suspicion - not without foundation - is that al Qa’eda is trying to turn Yemen into a ‘safe haven’ for its operatives and supporters within the Arabian peninsula.

Mutallab’s almost comical efforts at martyrdom proved to be something of a humiliation for the US authorities. Hence a mere one day after quite stupidly declaring that the country’s aviation security system had “worked”, Janet Napolitano - the secretary of homeland security - was forced to eat humble pie. She acknowledged that airport security had indeed failed. As for a furious Barack Obama, he publicly rebuked security officials for the “totally unacceptable” systemic and human failure that had occurred - going on to demand “accountability at every level”, but without giving any details or explanation as to what this would actuality mean in reality.

Naturally, Obama also vowed that the government would track down “all those responsible” for the attack and any further attacks being planned against the US - and also ordered a “sweeping” review of detection and terrorist watch list procedures. More bullishly still, Democratic senator Joe Lieberman - former nominee for vice-president during the now notorious 2000 ‘swinging chads’ presidential elections - called upon the Obama administration to “pre-emptively curb terrorism in Yemen” and halt plans to repatriate Guantanamo detainees to Yemen.

Showing imperialist solidarity, Gordon Brown declared that he will host a high-level - aren’t they always? - international conference on January 28 in London to discuss how to “counter radicalisation” in Yemen. This conference, described as a “stand-alone meeting”, will be held in parallel with the London conference on Afghanistan - which will be attended by representatives of many of the 43 countries involved in the Nato-led occupation forces - due to the apparent similarity and inter-relatedness of the issues, not to mention the duplication of key delegates participating.

Hence on the official conference agenda we have four main proposed items: identifying the “counter-terrorism needs” of the Yemeni government; encouraging and coordinating donor efforts in order to build Yemen’s “governmental capacity” and providing development support to those areas deemed “most at risk of radicalisation” (just about everywhere, in other words); bringing forward previous commitments on the “capacity building” and training of Yemeni military forces and improved coordination of international counter-terrorism efforts in the region; and assisting Yemen with the “wider challenges” it so manifestly faces - including promoting economic, social and political “reform”.

Using the same old arguments, and buzz words, we have seen previously applied - or misapplied - to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Brown calls Yemen “both an incubator and potential safe haven for terrorism” and therefore represents a “regional and global threat”. In order to meet this threat, the British government, according to Brown, will be aiding Yemen’s efforts to “tackle the underlying causes” of the current threat and to help provide it with the resources needed to “tackle extremism”.[1]

The ‘what are we to do about Yemen?’ international conference has received enthusiastic and predictable support from the White House and the European Union, whilst backing of one sort or another from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries seems almost certain. Brown and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, are particularly keen to get an agreement to set up an international fund to help the Yemeni government “drive al Qa’eda out of the country”. To this end, it is widely believed that Washington has pledged to double the $70 million already earmarked for the Yemeni government’s security programme, while Britain has committed itself to providing £100 million over the next two years.

Sounding a darker note, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard of the Parliamentary Yemen Group has urged Brown to closely involve Yemen in the Afghanistan summit. Yemen is “not yet a failed state”, maintains Pritchard - perhaps with a certain degree of self-delusion - but unless countries like the UK and US take drastic action to “shore up its struggling government” that could “change overnight”: thus granting al Qa’eda “virtual impunity” to launch terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia, the number one target and long dreamed of jewel in the terrorist crown for the likes of Osama bin Laden. And the nightmare scenario for the western governments and their dependents in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Of course, here we see the same disastrous path as taken in Pakistan and most notably Afghanistan - bolstering the powers of a corrupt, discredited and deeply authoritarian state in the belief, or hope, that by doing so the government in question will magically acquire a greater degree of support or at least grudging acceptance from the general populace and thus be enabled to win the ‘war on terror’. In reality, imperialist intervention only unleashes greater dislocation and chaos in already backward and traumatised societies - thereby creating the near perfect conditions for reactionary fanatics such as the Taliban, al Qa’eda, etc to grow, prosper and find a wider audience for their message.

After all, just take a look at Afghanistan - an invasion, occupation and subsequent war which we in the CPGB have steadfastly opposed, demanding the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all the occupying powers in the grotesquely named International Security Assistance Force. Imperialism backed president Hamid Karzai only for him to be shown more and more to be a (suave-looking) crook and fraudster. Hence the high farce that were the relatively recent presidential elections, where despite massive and overt cheating - and gangsterism - by pro-Karzai forces, he was still unable to secure the 50% of the vote supposedly needed to prevent a run-off and hence declare victory over his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Yet he remains president. The practical result for imperialism is that it is now left backing a regime - and former favourite stooge - that lacks all moral and political credibility.

Meanwhile British forces stationed in Helmand province are dying in ever larger numbers in order to buttress a system of corruption which runs from Karzai at the top, down through his ministers to regional and local tribal heads, imams, police chiefs, landlords and warlords - all criminally feeding off international aid, the trade in opium and taking bribes. But it was inevitable that the US-UK intervention in Afghanistan would lead to disintegration and further barbarism, with imperialism right from the outset trying to curry favour with the most conservative and regressive elements in Afghan society - only to find itself locked into a low-intensity and seemingly endless war with the Taliban and its not ungenerous backers.

And, of course, Yemeni society is not too dissimilar to Afghanistan - characterised as it is by tribalism, systemic corruption and grinding poverty. Though it may be the only republic on the Arabian Peninsula, it is also the poorest country in that region - 17.5% of the population have to live on less than $1.25 per day, 18.6% have a “probability of not surviving to age 40”, 34% do not use an “improved water source” and 42.7% of adults are illiterate.[2]

Needless to say, the Yemeni government is highly authoritarian. As in Afghanistan, the constitution of Yemen states that the country is an “Islamic republic” and hence only Muslims may hold political office, while sharia law is the main and overriding source of the legal code. The US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh of the General Peoples Congress, has hung on to semi-dictatorial power for over three decades - becoming president of North Yemen in 1978, then of unified Yemen in 1990 and being subsequently re-elected in 1999 and 2006.

Also as in Afghanistan, Yemen has been repeatedly torn apart by all manner of colonial/imperialist and predatory outside powers - most notably, Britain. Historically split between the north and south, northern Yemen was once part of the Ottoman empire and became the independent Mutawakkilite kingdom of Yemen in 1918 - and then a republic in 1962 after an Egyptian-backed coup by nationalist army officers deposed the crown prince, Muhammad al-Badr, thus creating the Yemen Arab Republic. The declaration of the YAR sparked off a vicious and bloody civil war - with over 126,000 killed on both sides - which saw Saudi Arabia and Jordan backing al-Badr’s royalists, while Egypt supported the governmental forces. The YAR frantically cobbled together a reconciliation with royalist forces in 1968 and Saudi Arabia eventually recognised the republic in 1970.

Meanwhile southern Yemen, or Southern Arabia, had been ruled by the British since 1839 - the port of Aden was a major strategic asset - and in 1963 all the Aden protectorates were incorporated against the clear wishes of the overwhelming majority of the population into the Federation of South Arabia. However, as the northern Yemen civil war began to spill over into the south, a movement spearheaded by the National Liberation Front, and then the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (Flosy), launched a rebellion against the British occupying forces. Despite the brutal tactics of the British, which involved routine torture and naked divide-and-rule bribery, the British were kicked out in 1967 and the victorious NLF - after bloodily suppressing Flosy - declared the People’s Republic of Yemen in 1967 and then after an internecine political civil war within the NLF itself the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was born in 1970. Close ties and various degrees of backing were quickly secured from the Soviet Union, China and Cuba and all political parties within the PDRY were incorporated into the Yemeni Socialist Party.

After many years of fraught and fractious negotiations - which often spilled over into military conflict - the YAR and the PDRY merged into the Republic of Yemen in 1990. However, yet again, there was protracted violence and civil war - as the more backward and tribal north started to exercise increasing hegemony over the more secularist and progressive south (particularly around the urbanised, working class areas centred around those regions that used to form the old Aden protectorates). This new round of civil war reached its height when secessionist southern leaders from the former PDRY ‘went UDI’ and announced the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen on May 21 1994. But the DRY received no international recognition and quickly died a death, though lingering secessionist elements in the south amongst ex-DRYers - and others - remain to this day, with opposition occasionally flaring up into low-level guerrilla warfare. The so-called reunification of the north and south in 1999 saw the continued and further dominance of the tribalist north over the south.

Self-evidently, colonialist and imperialist intervention in Yemen - as in Afghanistan - has only acted to ignite and sustain the most reactionary and backward elements in Yemeni society, and the region as a whole. Just as obviously, and contrary to much of what we are told by bourgeois politicians and the mainstream media, terrorists do not need to be based in a friendly state in order to carry out their attacks. Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab himself is a living example of this, able to flit almost effortlessly from one country to the next. The youngest of 16 children, he came from an extremely wealthy background - his father is one of the richest men in Africa as the former chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and also the previous Nigerian federal commissioner for economic development. Mutallab’s Yemeni mother, Aisha, was the second of his father’s two wives.

So he was initially raised in Kaduna, in the Muslim-dominated north and then at the family home in Nairobi, Kenya. He attended the Essence International School in Kaduna, as well as classes at the Rabiatu Mutallib Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies. Thereafter he was a pupil at the British International School in Lomé, the capital of Togo, a private establishment for the offspring of wealthy Nigerians - where he earned the nicknames ‘Alfa’ (a term for Muslim clerics) and ‘Pope’ due to his single-minded piety. As part of his tour of the world, Mutallab visited the US for the first time in 2004, and for the 2004-05 academic year he studied at the Institute for the Arabic Language at Sana’a, Yemen, when he was not attending lectures at Iman University.

From there, Mutallab hopped over to the UK and began his studies at University College London in September 2005, finally earning a 2:2 degree in mechanical engineering in June 2008. In August of that year he regularly visited Houston, Texas. Furthermore, the industrious Mutallab started a masters degree in international business at the University of Wollongong in Dubai in January 2009 - eventually returning to Yemen to study Arabic in August, where he was the only African in a college of 70 students. Mutallab is reputedly a soccer fan too (though it is unclear whether he supports Arsenal or Liverpool!).

Mutallab’s globe-trotting career as a would-be terrorist, and chronically alienated human being, demonstrates the truly global and interconnected nature of the problems facing us - just as with the environment and carbon emissions. No part of the world is immune from the ravages of capitalism and imperialism - or despairing terrorism, which Marxists have always opposed. However, the CPGB remains committed to the fight for the immediate withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, etc. Democracy, secularism, women’s rights and social advance can only be won by the renewal and intensification of class struggle and the politics of revolutionary democracy, not through the acts of alienated terrorists - and certainly not through the machinations and manoeuvres of the imperialist powers.


  1. . www.number10.gov.uk/Page21950.
  2. . http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDI_2008_EN_Tables.pdf