Sheikh who defies Bin Laden’s thugs
By Philip Smucker
SANAA: Inside the grounds of his tightly guarded mansion in Sana’a, Sheikh Abdul Azziz Al Shaif plucks some leaves off a branch of a qat tree and stuffs the narcotic greenery between his cheek and gum.
The chief of the largest tribe in Yemen, he is known locally as the “Sheikh of Marlborough” for his devotion to his estate in Wiltshire.
He is also one of several leading moderates, dissident voices who claim they have faced assassination attempts by Al Qaeda for their opposition to the network’s use of the country as a base to launch attacks on Western targets.
As the sheikh chewed his qat, armed guards pointed out gaping holes in a tower from rocket blasts, which the sheikh claimed were launched on the orders of Osama bin Laden.
It is easy to understand why he has become a target. Last Sunday, an unmanned CIA Predator drone unleashed a Hellfire missile at a Toyota on a sandy track in the north of the country.
The strike killed one of bin Laden’s former bodyguards, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, also known as Abu Ali, and five henchmen. The ageing sheikh described yesterday how his men had earlier chased the same men across the desert before engaging them in a four-day artillery battle.
Such action, just as America intensifies its campaign against terrorism on the Arabian peninsula, has not made the sheikh popular. He has been pilloried in the Muslim press as an un-Islamic “infidel lover” with a penchant for drugs other than qat.
But he is used to such flak, partly because he was alone in the former British colony in supporting the 1991 Gulf War, when other leaders staunchly opposed the US action.
Since the Predator strike, Washington has shuttered its embassy here indefinitely and the city is on high alert for Al Qaeda revenge attacks.
To the dismay of Yemeni security officials, who had hoped their co-operation with the CIA would be kept from public view, several American officials leapt to take credit for the attack.
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, said America was using a new approach to “deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda”. Green Beret units training Yemeni forces in the capital to take on Al Qaeda have dug in on the outskirts of the city for a possible backlash.
Yemen, a feudal culture that has made some tentative strides towards democracy in recent years, is the ancestral homeland of bin Laden and a key breeding ground for terrorist cells.
Two years ago, 17 Americans were killed when the USS Cole was rammed in the port of Aden by a boat packed with explosives. Last month a French supertanker, the Limburg, was attacked in an almost identical manner. Both raids have been blamed on Al Qaeda.
America has moved leading counter-terrorism experts into the country and has stepped up co-operation with the government of President Ali Salih. Until the CIA Predator strike though, most Yemenis thought they were fighting their own war on terrorism. Many Yemenis are disturbed by the bold new US tactics because they signal their government’s failure to deal with terror. —LDT