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Austin Bodetti

Saudi Arabia casts shadow over US role in Yemen crisis

In Yemen, the United States employs several weapons in its battle against al-Qaeda [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 January, 2017

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Analysis: As the US pressures Saudi Arabia over its involvement in the Yemen crisis, Washington's own subtle involvement in the war may fall by the wayside, notes Austin Bodetti.

In Yemen, the United States employs several weapons in its battle against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - the US-labelled terrorist organisation's strongest franchise.

Some of the more obvious examples include airstrikes conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency and raids undertaken by Joint Special Operations Command - but one of the more obscure tools used in the War on Terror has proved among the most controversial for Yemenis.

The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), part of the US Treasury, can designate AQAP-aligned Yemenis as "specially designated global terrorists" (SDGTs).

To gain insight into how OFAC assists Washington's interventions in Yemen, The New Arab examined the cases of two recent SDGTs: Abdulwahab al-Humayqani and al-Hassan Ali Abkar. Both dispute OFAC allegations that they assisted AQAP over the past several years.

OFAC classified Humayqani as an SDGT in December 2013, accusing him of assisting AQAP in an attack on a Yemeni military base, financing AQAP with his own money, funnelling money from Saudi and Yemeni AQAP supporters through a charity registered in his name, recruiting AQAP fighters to assassinate Yemeni politicians, and representing AQAP during meetings with Yemeni officials.

A well-known Yemeni politician and Salafi, Humayqani rejects OFAC's claims.

Whoever thinks that they would employ political participation as a tactic does not know the ideology of ISIS and al-Qaeda



"I am not outside the law of the Yemeni government," he told The New Arab in a conversation over WhatsApp. "The Saudi and Yemeni governments, two partners of the US, have been hit by violence and terrorism. I am ready to appear before any Yemeni court to face any charge and deny it."

He argued that AQAP would never support a politician: "Al-Qaeda and ISIS don't believe in political participation under the modern state - neither real nor tactical participation. This is the ABC of their ideology, through which they oppose Arab regimes and their political processes. Whoever thinks that they would employ political participation as a tactic does not know the ideology of ISIS and al-Qaeda."

Humayqani has pleaded his case to "dozens of American and other Western journalists", including from The Washington Post. "I asked for a meeting with the Americans through the British ambassador, but they never responded," Humayqani said.

The designation of Abkar, a lesser-known public figure, made fewer ripples than Humayqani's. In declaring him an SDGT in December 2016, OFAC alleged that Abkar was arming, commanding, and financing AQAP affiliates in conjunction with Nayef al-Qaisi, a Yemeni governor designated by OFAC as an SDGT in May 2015. The New Arab interviewed Qaisi in November 2017.

Abkar told The New Arab little other than, "the lawyer assigned to my file at the US Treasury asked me to temporarily stop talking to the media", declining to specify why.

A Treasury spokesman noted that SDGTs could appeal their designations through instructions available on the government agency's website. The website asks that SDGTs petition OFAC by emailing or mailing their appeals. Petitioners may encounter several difficulties, such as the source of OFAC's information on them remaining undisclosed and - in the case of Abkar and al-Humayqani - living in a war zone.

The spokesman never answered whether Abkar and Humayqani appealed their designations, and Humayqani ignored several requests for further comment.

The impact of OFAC's designations on alleged AQAP commanders remains dubious, given that anti-American militants likely have little concern over American sanctions. The sanctions also freeze any US assets the designees may have and prohibits US citizens from doing business with them, but neither Abkar nor Humayqani appear to have US assets.

Then again, a Yemeni currency exchange affected by an SDGT designation lamented the reputational damage that OFAC had caused it in 2016.

Humayqani even lives in Saudi Arabia, one of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East



OFAC's battle with AQAP continues amid the Yemeni civil war, which has seen at least 10,000 deaths as the Yemeni government and a Saudi-backed coalition fight Iranian-backed rebels known as Houthis. Though both sides have battled AQAP as well, some SDGTs, including Humayqani and Qaisi, have official or unofficial relationships with the Yemeni government, which the US backs.

Humayqani even lives in Saudi Arabia, one of Washington's closest allies in the Middle East. Whether the US has asked Saudi Arabia or the current Yemeni government to act against Humayqani remains unknown.

As the US pressures Saudi Arabia over several concurrent humanitarian crises in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and the Middle East even before the devastating war, OFAC's subtle involvement in Yemen may fall by the wayside.

Until then, however, Abkar and Humayqani will have to deal with the financial, political and reputational consequences of their SDGT designations, and, if the allegations prove true, AQAP will have to look elsewhere for commanders and fundraisers.

Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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