Michael Bronner

As Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue their calamitous assault on Yemen's lifeline - the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, transited by some 80 percent of the country's commercial goods, fuel and aid - Warscapes editor-at-large Michael Bronner checks in with a trusted Yemeni analyst and old friend about the sophisticated propaganda war raging in parallel; a recent visit by the United Nations special envoy; and an increasingly bellicose United Arab Emirates. Due to the unstable security situation in Yemen, our correspondent - referred to below as “Amjad” - asked us to withhold his real name.

Michael Bronner: Where are you?

Amjad: I’m at home in Sana’a. 
MB: How’s your family? 

A:  There’s no one left. Everyone left. In a city that tries to restore its sounds and voices, there’s no one left. My mother is in the village. One son is with their mother. And my older son comes from time to time, wondering about the future and hoping to start his university education if he could. Sometimes, maybe after a week, or two weeks, someone will come to help me clean up, or maybe help me with laundry. And then, they all disappear again. 

MB: Why? Because it's safer in the village?

A: No, but because of the drama of the war and the divisive toll it took on my family, everyone is running after their own lives and best interests. My older son thinks I have a magic carpet, but that I won’t use it to help him, like I used to help everyone in the family here and in Europe before. So he says that I don’t love him. He thinks I abandoned him. I'm afraid he’s out of control. My daughter prefers to be with her mother and grandmother, because there are lots of young ladies from the family and close relatives around them. Sometimes they are in Ibb, sometimes in Sana’a.

MB: So how do you spend your days?

A: Crazy! I look like a homeless person! Most of the time, I’m at home or watching news or social media or sleeping. Everyone thinks I’m crazy because I came back Yemen from [Europe] in the middle of the war - that I’m stupid. Everyone is trying to escape Yemen - to Korea or anywhere else - and they don’t understand why I came back. I tried to explain that I came back because I love my country, but people here think I have an agenda. In the village, people think I’m a spy - for real.

MB: Is that dangerous for you, for them to think that?

A: It’s crazy. It’s been going on ever since I came back, but in the last three or four weeks, it’s become much more tense. So I’m trying to keep a low profile. It’s like house arrest. I just switch off my phones and try to disappear.  

MB: So you traveled recently to Hodeidah. This is after the initial assault on the city? 

A: Yes. Three weeks ago – or three and a half. I traveled with human rights activists and Yemeni NGOs, as well as some journalists, to assess the situation with respect to humanitarian aid. It took us about six hours driving. The road was very dangerous, but there was a lot of movement because people were traveling to Hodeidah to answer the call to defend the city. 

MB: How was the journey? 

A: There were airstrikes on some of the roads as well as on the main road. When we came down from the high road in the mountains and valley closer to Hodeidah, there was a lot of movement of people – almost business as usual. In the road to Hodeidah, the communities had come together and fix the roads in the “Yemeni way”: They don’t give a shit about the Coalition. We reached Hodeidah by noon. We had lunch, chewed Qat a little bit and waited for instructions. There were a lot of fighters around in the streets. The sea coast, which is usually busy, was empty. A Coalition airstrike had already scared the public off, hitting some private commercial businesses, the post office and one of the international NGOs’ health facility, so we went to see some of the sites. They also hit a bus of [internally displaced people], but we couldn’t reach there. 

MB: Were the airstrikes ongoing?

A: You could hear that there were drones, helicopters, jets all over the sky 24-7. The people of Hodeidah refer to the drones by their sound: “Zannanah.” In public and social gatherings, people were making what you could call “gallows” jokes as well about exchanging all kinds of news and rumors. Overall, they were so exhausted, thinking first about food, security, income and many concerns generally about the future. The majority, I think, are not interested in the war or care that much about siding with either of the warring parties.

The aftermath of a Saudi-led Coalition airstrike in Hodeidah (photo courtesy Abduljabbar Zeyad, Reuters). 

MB: So the Houthis were in control?

A: Yes, Ansar Allah controlled the city. Local and international NGOs were active; they never left. I think they were very courageous, honestly. The foreigners stayed in the office, but the Yemeni employees were all over the city working, moving aid. On the same day we were in Hodeidah, a Coalition airstrike hit near the Norwegian Refugee Council’s facilities in Sana’a, so people were afraid the Coalition would target aid groups in Hodeidah. This has been going on since the beginning of the war.

MB: What about the port itself?

A: It was clear that the Coalition did not intend to destroy the port, but for sure they destroyed the Hodeidah airport. In total, we were in the city for almost three-and-a-half days. It seemed as if the Emiratis’ loyal militias were starting to withdraw. If they wanted to take the city, they probably could do it with all their planes and navy and firepower, but it would destroy the city, resulting in so many killings on both sides. It would be a very long street fight, for sure, as the Ansar Allah Houthi Fighters were ready and determined to protect their city. So no quick Golden Victory!
MB: So from some of our previous correspondence, it seems like the whole landscape in Yemen with respect to the war has become consumed by propaganda from all sides.

A: There is a war in the field, on the ground, of course. But KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] and UAE [United Arab Emirates] have developed very powerful propaganda capabilities. They’ve been building them for years, and Yemen is a good testing ground. This is an extension of what they did beginning in 2011 in the Arab spring, in Syria, in Libya. So their propaganda works, but at the same time, Yemenis don’t care. The Saudis and Emiratis want to mobilize the public, but Yemenis don’t have the energy or the resources to be mobilized at this point. And the other side’s media is very strong - Ansar Allah [the Houthis] - and even international and regional media, which is starting to cover Yemen again, so people go there to know the truth. 

A Houthi fighter patrols the port in Hodeidah (photo courtesey Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters). 

MB: You’re saying people trust the Houthis’ media operation more than the do the Coalition’s?

A: Yes. Ansar Allah has credible reports from the field. After four years now, people tend to believe them more. If you wait 48 hours after they report something, it tends to pan out. The same doesn’t hold true for the UAE and KSA. They report, for example, that they have taken control of Sana’a, or that their Operation Golden Victory [assault on Hodeidah] was a quick success with no injuries on their side. But they have Yemenis doing the fighting for them - all the radical Salafi jihadists they recruited - and all the hospitals in Aden are full of them. These fighters have families. So people come to know the truth.  
MB: So on the Coalition side on the ground, it’s mostly Yemenis, rather than Emirati forces, who are doing the fighting and being killed? 

A: Yes. These are Yemenis they have groomed and radicalized to fight an ideological fight against the Houthis, because they think they are Shi’a. It’s just like Saudi Arabia did in Afghanistan: The Russians are infidels, so you need to fight them. They have been recruiting like this in Yemen, and in other countries, to fight an ideological war against the Houthis. They brainwash them. It’s the same story as in Libya, Syria, Iraq.      
MB: So, in terms of, of logistics and training, who’s organizing the Yemeni Salafis? Is it foreign fighters that have had experience in Syria, or is it Emirati soldiers, Saudi soldiers? Who is coordinating them on the ground?

A: As they have for decades, the Saudis and UAE depend upon the radical Salafi schools in the North and in South Yemen - the same institutions that flourished with the return of the Afghan Yemenis in the 1990s and al-Qaeda. The Saudis have a long tradition with funding and using these schools - and now the UAE seems to be following the pattern, adding their own innovations. But what happened during the time of the Sa’ada wars [the Houthi insurgency in North Yemen against the central government, which began in 2004], is that Ansar Allah managed to clean out a lot of these schools from the North. These included what I’ll call the “Scientific Salafi” and the “Jihadi Salafi.” The Scientific Salafi refers to the scholar or academic phase where they feed them and brainwash them with Salafi indoctrination. There is a small, tiny hair that separates this from the shift over to the Jihadi Salafi phase, where they become al-Qaeda or ISIS. These schools and charities were all over the country - many loyal to Saudi Arabia, some to Qatar, some to United Arab Emirates. They gave them paramilitary training and so forth. In the current war, since 2015, the focus is in the South. The Emiratis bring them together, give them schools, training - either in Aden or Hadhramaut - and, of course, they have their military training camp in Assab in Eritrea.   

MB: The UAE has been sending Yemeni fighters to Eritrea for military training?  

A: Yes. The Salafi fighters are part of the new UAE southern militia, but they are the main core. Thousands of those newly-recruited Yemeni militiamen were given military training in Assab, which is a small port city in Eritrea, as well as in many camps in South Yemen. UAE created in each southern governate a locally trained military force called the “Elites,” which are loyal only to them, rather than to President Hadi and the Republic of Yemen’s military and intelligence institutions.  

MB: It might strike some of our readers as odd that Eritrea - a small, reclusive East African dictatorship - would be playing a role in the war in Yemen. 

A: This is part of the United Arab Emirates’ war of ports with China - establishing a base or foothold in the Horn of Africa - and they have a very active base in Assab. They transport these Yemeni Salafi trainees to Assab by boat from Aden or Socotra. Some of them I know personally, so I’ve heard firsthand. Most of the militias the UAE created and use in the South were [trained] in Assab. Most of the Yemenis fighting on the side of the UAE in Hodeidah are part of these militias. The US, in turn, has hunted down many of the leaders of these militias. 
MB: This is the part of the same old story - but what you’re saying is that, in Yemen, the US is providing major support to the Saudis and Emiratis - to the Saudi-led coalition - while the Emiratis, in turn, are training radical Salafi jihadists in Eritrea. 

A: Yes, to the best of my knowledge, and since 2015, there have been US drone strikes on some of their camps. It happened in the South. It happened in Marib and Shabwa [two of Yemen’s restive governates]. It’s ridiculous. The Saudis and Emiratis will attack the Houthis with airplanes and ammunition supplied by the United States, then the US will send drones to hit the Coalition’s militias of radical Salafi jihadis fighting on the front lines. The leaders of these militias are often radical jihadis on the “most-wanted” list, even though they’re fighting the Houthis with US and Coalition support.
MB: How much overlap is there between supporters of Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Salafis who are volunteering to fight for the Emiratis and Saudis?

A: There is almost no difference. They can shift [allegiances] anytime. It’s the same school; you are feeding the same ideology. Then, when you move these Salafi students from the academic phase to the fighting phase, it just depends on which “infidels” they point them to - whether it’s the state, Americans, Shi’a. At the same time, UAE intelligence has assassinated all the important leaders of the Salafi movements in Aden and the South, and they put in their place those who are loyal. They’ve cleansed the ranks. Ninety percent of the Salafi school leaders who defended Aden against the Houthis in 2015 have been assassinated. The UAE wants to clean out the famous leaders - those big, knowledgable sheikhs with huge followings and respect. They cleaned the scene, just like they did with independent media, keeping just those who are loyal to them. In the end, the UAE and the Saudis cannot fully control them. They do their best, but as always, it’s like playing with fire. The Salafis can easily turn against UAE or Saudi interests and fight against them. This happened in Aden, and many other parts of Yemen since the war started.  

United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths arrives for peace talks (photo courtesey AFP). 

MB: Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, just came back from talks with the warring parties in Yemen and reported that there’s a “strong desire for peace.” Is that your sense, as well?   

A: Yes. He’s doing good work so far. Behind the scenes, the British and the French helped start all this mess, and now I think everyone is putting pressure on them to clean it up. But there’s a problem, because the UAE wants to keep fighting. They have their own interests and agendas - it’s the new colonialism and struggle to be on top of the regional world order. It looks like Saudi Arabia is ready to reach an agreement - everyone is ready, including the Houthis - except for the United Arab Emirates. They never dreamed of such gains as they’ve achieved - in terms of gas, oil, seaports. Or maybe it is their role within the Coalition to continue to put pressure on the Houthis until there is a final deal. The Saudi Army is useless. The UAE’s achievements since the start of the war, by contrast, have been impressive. The Emiratis are the new masters in the region, for sure. 

Feature image - a massive march in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, marking the 3rd anniversary of the war - courtesey Al-Thalra Net.