- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

MARIB, Yemen Two suspected al Qaeda operatives made their way through this ancient tribal town in December. The Yemeni army, spurred by the post-September 11 war against terror, came looking for them.

The local tribal militia was wary of the government troops on its turf. When a government fighter jet roared past, tribal fighters feared an air attack and opened fire.

The first major battle in Yemen's U.S.-inspired campaign against terrorism consisted of 800 tribal warriors raining bullets onto 200 troops. The tribal fighters didn't stop shooting until about 20 soldiers were killed and the rest had fled.

After the incident, which both sides called a "misunderstanding," the tribal sheiks did the customary and mandatory Yemeni thing. They turned their sons over to be "guests" of the government to be housed in barracks rather than jails to show they are serious about helping the government track down al Qaeda operatives, who are believed to be using Yemen for refuge.

American military advisers heading here to try to organize the Yemeni army will find a poor country, where tribal leaders win trust by exchanging oxen and daggers, and where tribal customs are more reliable than laws.

U.S. troops fewer than 100 are expected will see a tribal culture somewhat like the one that has complicated American efforts in Afghanistan.

In an age where information, commerce and even terrorism are globalized, Yemen's tribes survive by localizing.

"Their country is their village and the neighboring village," said Polish Ambassador to Yemen Krzysztof Suprowicz. "That is their country."

For centuries, Yemenis steeled themselves against foreign invaders by building villages high on mountains or insulated by rugged deserts.

About 18 million people live in Yemen, and tribes can consist of several hundred thousand or even a couple of million people.

The national government has remarkably little power over much of the country. The tribes, based on extended families and geography, provide for their members by pooling basic and scarce desert resources, such as water and arable land.

The romantic image of robed tribesmen carrying curvy daggers in their belts is still a common sight here. But it is the Kalashnikov rifle, possessed by nearly every man, that gives the tribes their muscle.

Men with rifles kidnapped Mr. Suprowicz about two years ago and held him for four days.

Kidnapping is a common tactic of tribes seeking government services, such as new roads. In the case of Mr. Suprowicz, the tribe wanted the government to release a sheik being held on suspicion that he had met secretly with Saudi Arabian contacts. The Saudis are longtime meddlers in Yemeni affairs.

Mr. Suprowicz said the tribesmen treated him well, included him in their meetings and swore to protect him. But they seemed not to grasp what his title of ambassador meant.

As in other kidnappings in Yemen, the central government was in effect seen by Mr. Suprowicz's captors as just another tribe. The government could not secure his release, so an up-and-coming tribal leader named Sheik Abdulkarim bin Ali Murshed did.

"The government can't ignore a tribe and do whatever it wants to do," explained Sheik Murshed, who leads a tribe of about 100,000 people and has formed an organization to settle tribal disputes and oppose terrorism.

Sheik Murshed, 36, figures to play a role in Yemen's transition as the world closes in on the heretofore insulated country.

He recently came to the capital in his robes and turban, carrying his dagger and a mobile phone, and riding in a Toyota Land Cruiser filled with armed guards. He presented himself at the U.S. Embassy to invite the ambassador to a wedding.

Ambassador Edmund Hull was glad to attend, lending his support to a tribesman risking controversy by bridging the gap with America.

"The tribal system is a civilized one," Sheik Murshed said, when asked if tribalism is a thing of the past. "It preserves very noble ideas, like protecting the vulnerable, the rich helping the poor, protecting people's rights."

When a member of one tribe kills a member of another, Sheik Murshed's organization may attempt to prevent escalation by applying customary dispute-settling techniques.

To guarantee their cooperation with mediators, the two feuding tribes might have to deposit a couple of cars and several hundred Kalashnikov rifles in storage. The mediator could order the killer's tribe to pay the victim's tribe in rifles and blood money now at the rate of about $4,400 for one life.

If any member of a tribe refuses to abide by the ruling, his tribal elders will move into his house and stay there until he concedes.

But the system faces a tough test in the new world of al Qaeda and the U.S. war against terrorism.

It was at the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000 that suspected al Qaeda operatives blew a hole in the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. In 1994, President Ali Abdullah Saleh welcomed Arab fighters trained in Afghanistan to join the tribes in the north in crushing a rebellion in southern Yemen, pulling more external forces into the tribal mix.

The two al Qaeda suspects who were the subject of the search in December wormed their way into the arms of tribal protection. They handed out cash in U.S. dollars and lent cars to people who introduced them to the tribal leaders. People were impressed by the al Qaeda suspects' seeming religious piety and their portable satellite telephone.

"Al Qaeda went to the tribes, asked for help and got it," said Yemeni presidential adviser Abdul Hadi Hamdani. "[The tribes] do not understand what they represent."

Yemeni tribal leaders consider themselves shamed if they cannot assist those who come to them seeking help. Local shame can undermine their authority a lot quicker than criticism from President Bush.

But observers say the tribal culture does not necessarily conflict with American goals. For one thing, it provides clear lines of leadership. Foreigners, government officials and the tribes agree that most in the tribes just want help on necessities, such as health care, schools and jobs. The country's per-capita income of $368 a year provides little to fall back on.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide