White Westeners At Risk In Yemen

A series of violent incidents have recently taken place in and around the Yemeni capital Sana'a. Steve Inskeep talks to Iona Craig, who writes for The Times of London.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

An active and dangerous al-Qaida affiliate operates from Yemen, which is what we'll talk about next. In that country, the United States and al-Qaida have been waging a low-level war. Yesterday, what was believed to be a U.S. drone killed at least five militants riding in a car. That follows events in the past few days: street fighting, a suicide car bombing, and the attempted kidnapping of two Americans security officials.

We're going to talk about all this with Iona Craig. She writes for The Times of London. she just returned from Yemen, she's in London now. Welcome to the program.

IONA CRAIG: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: So when you walk down the streets of Sana'a, the capital, just how dangerous does Yemen feel right now?

CRAIG: Well, as a white Westerner there, people cannot walk down the streets of Sana'a at the moment because of the uptick in kidnappings, attempted assassinations, and the general sort of feeling a little bit of chaos in Sana'a at the moment.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand what has happened in the last few days. Do we just have an explosion of crime, opportunistic chances to grab people? Or do you sense the outlines of a pretty clear conflict?

CRAIG: Yeah, there has been a pretty clear conflict that started about three weeks ago. This all began with a series of U.S. drone strikes and Yemeni Air Force strikes over a period of three days in the south of the country, against a sort of major al-Qaida training camp in an area that's been known to have been under the control of al-Qaida for some time.

Following those three days of strikes, a week later the Yemeni military then went in with a large ground offensive. And that's been going on for two weeks now. So what we're seeing in Sana'a and in other cities is a backlash against that by militants carrying out suicide bombings, IED attacks, and then there have also been clashes with the military, with gunmen, particularly in Sana'a. That's still unclear whether some of that is tribally linked and, as you say, more opportunistic.

But it has been - we've seen this sort of huge surge in violence in recent days and the last couple of weeks, because of this military offensive that's going on in the south of the country.

INSKEEP: What happened to the two Americans who were almost kidnapped?

CRAIG: Well, this happened actually last month - the news that they were Americans has just been kind of revealed to us in the last few days. This is not an uncommon incident in Sana'a recently. There were gunmen that approached them as they were - appeared to be taking a haircut in a barbershop in the middle of Sana'a and tried to kidnap them. The American officials were obviously armed and responded to that by shooting dead the two men that were seemingly apparently trying to kidnap them in the middle of Sana'a.

And this is why I said in the beginning it's very rare for Westerners to be walking around the streets of Sana'a because, yeah, the risks are very high if you're going to be a white Westerner and, you know, walking around openly in Sana'a at moment.

INSKEEP: Let me come back to the roots of this. You said this began with an offensive against al-Qaida affiliates in some of the rural provinces, and that seems to have triggered at least some if not most of the violence and chaos that you describe in the capital. Do you think there is widespread public sympathy for the al-Qaida side in this?

CRAIG: No. I think, in fact, what we now have seen in the recent weeks (unintelligible) a real reverse in that in the sense that there has been a big social media campaign of Yemenis actually supporting what the military has been doing in the South. And it's the first times I've actually really seen that in three and a half years in Yemen, of people actually openly saying we support the army in this fight.

I think on a more local level there has been certainly in the past, when we saw (unintelligible) more sympathy for al-Qaida perhaps in those areas where they have been operating and had control, because they'd been doing simple things. They've been providing electricity or water or social services to those local areas, which the government has failed to do for decades.

And this is often the issue, where local sympathy can be raised for al-Qaida because they do act as a de facto government and actually manage to do it better than the state has done in the past. So that's often the issue with localized support. But certainly at the moment, generally there has been a real push of public support for the military in what they're trying to do against al-Qaida and its affiliates.

INSKEEP: Iona Craig is a freelance journalist who covers Yemen for The Times of London. Thanks very much.

CRAIG: Thank you.

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