Back to the Archive, Yemen in the Eyes of Osama Bin Laden


Wed, 15-09-2021 03:52 PM, Aden

Hussam Radman (South24) 

September 11th 2001 was a turning point for the path of the global political system which had just slithered from bipolarity and began to witness an era of American superiority. All of a sudden, Osama Bin Laden succeeded in implementing the “Battle of Manhattan”, or “Manhattan Raid” which destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers, and tried to do the same with the Pentagon and the Congress headquarters.

This incident unleashed the US administration’s instinct for absolute domination, as the foreign policy of George W. Bush was based upon two slogans: the world war against “islamic terrorism” and exporting democracy to the Middle Eastern states. The two slogans constituted a political translation of the doctrines relevant to civilization conflict and the end of history.

Today, after 20 years, Washington’s slogans look pale in wake of the failure of its foreign policy, rendering the aspirations of absolute domination as part of the past amid the establishment of an international multipolar system. As for the security and geopolitical threats that led to the 11 September events, they are still existent, as shown recently in the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, which has been strongly welcomed by Al Qaeda and its offspring’s in the Levant, Iraq, Yemen and Arab Maghreb.

In response to scenes of shameful withdrawal from Kabul, the American press renewed its traditional question about the feasibility of military intervention in Afghanistan. President Biden answered: "We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as getting Osama Bin Laden.  And we did.  Just imagine if Bin Laden had decided, with Al Qaeda, to launch an attack from Yemen.  Would we ever have gone to Afghanistan?"(1)

Why then the American losses in Yemen would seem modest if compared with the intervention in Yemen scenario?

The 11 September Events had a direct engagement with the facts relevant to the occupation of Afghanistan, and the motives behind the invasion of Iraq, but Yemen has been the missing ring from analysts and observers, although it acted as a starting base for the jihadist operations against American interests, and it still constitutes a security dilemma to Washington.

Yemen was of paramount importance in Bin Laden’s jihadist ideology, as it had a central position in his security and political strategy, and was close to become a steady bastion for global  jihadism unless that acceleration of events and the US troops’ move to Afghanistan.

This analytical paper will try to highlight the exceptional position Yemen had in the thought and conscience of Bin Laden, and to clarify the features of his jihadist experience since the end of 1980s till 2011, the same year that witnessed the eruption of the Arab Spring Revolutions and the assassination of  Al Qaeda's Leader. It will also highlight the historical and strategic peculiarity of South Yemen, as shown clearly in the “Ramray” (2) Documents, and the testimonies of those who had been close to Bin Laden.

Exporting jihadism in South and reforming the system in North 

The majority of Arab Afghans who had been financed by the US and the Gulf nations to fight against the Soviet Union were of Yemeni-Saudi origin. Sheikh Osama Bin Laden was just trusting the Yemenis as his guards.(3) After the Soviet Forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Bin Laden returned to the KSA and tried to convince the intelligence agency to repeat the Afghani jihadist experience in South Yemen, but Riyadh didn't treat Bin Laden's call seriously, and Prince Turki Al Faisal told him that South Yemen will collapse on its own (4).

The independent jihadist mentality at that time had not been yet mature in Bin Laden's mind, he was more close to Al Sahwa Movement (Awakening Movement) which produced 3 main offsprings in Yemen, the Traditional Salafism, led by Muqbil Al Wadi'i, the M.B. Salafism (the Ikhwani Salafism), headed by Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani, and the Jihadist Salafism, led by some Yemeni returnees from Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden bet on convincing those movements of practicing jihad against the Socialist regime but he also failed (5). His instigating speeches in Yemen was one of the reasons which made the KSA pressured him to reduce his activities.

In 1990, the region witnessed two enormous events; the first is the declaration of the Yemeni Unity which undermined the possibilities of moving the jihadist experience to South Yemen. That is why Bin Laden used the ideological mobilization and financial aids to unify the Islamists' front for engaging in the Yemeni Constitution War and imposing the sharia rulings.

The second event was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, followed by an outright American intervention in the Gulf and intensifying the military coordination with Yemen. Osama Bin Laden had repeatedly warned the Saudis of the Iraqi regime's expansionism. He later tried to persuade the Saudi regime of using the Arab Afghans to liberate Kuwait without the need for foreign military intervention but his proposal did find deaf ears among the decision makers. This led to a significant transformation in Bin Laden's jihadist ideology and his practical experience.(6)

Bin Laden was forced to escape from the KSA after being put under house arrest, and  he secretly moved to Afghanistan, then to Sudan in 1992, where he began to expand his  jihadist approach from the confrontation of the Communist camp to target The Western and American interests and their allies in Yemen and the KSA.

His new approach regarding Yemen took two parallel paths:

The rearrangement of the status of the Arab Afghans who returned to Yemen, and pushing some of their leaders to target the American interests in Aden, like what happened in Goldmoor hotel in December 1992, killing a number of the American soldiers who were on their way to Somalia. This was a prelude to a bigger operation implemented by Abu Ubaidah Al-Banshiri Al Qaeda Military Leader) in Somalia, which ultimately led to the US withdrawal there (7). 

Exploiting the Union Regime’s  margin of freedom for promoting the Islamic Sahwa in South Yemen, and getting use of the popular religiosity feelings to create environments which embrace the islamic movements, as well as implementing widespread assassinations against leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Those operations reached their peak in 1993 and 1994.

In Spite of his tireless activities, Bin Laden failed to achieve his goals of unifying and leading the islamic front, as he enter in an early clash with the Traditional Salafism,  led by Muqbil Al Wadi'i who described him as “the Head of sedition”. (later, Bin Laden was quoted as saying that if he would pardon all who mistreated him, he won’t do the same with Al Wadi'i). He also scuffled with the Ikhwani Salafism’s opportunism , especially after the “Million Armed March''led by Abdul Majeed Al-Zindani towards the Presidential Palace in Sana’a, which ended in the latter’s appointment in the Yemen’s  Presidential Council and his approval to the constitution which he used to describe as being “secular”. As for the Jihadist Arab Afghans, Saleh succeded later to contain them, especially “Al Fadly” and “Al Nahdi” who were accused of implementing  the Goldmoor Operation (8).

In May 1994, the then Yemeni Vice President, Ali Salem Al Beidh, announced the end of the Union State, and the restoration of South Yemen’s political independence (in the wake of the war declaration against South). This constituted a new opportunity for Bin Laden to increase his political influence. Accordingly, the financial and armament support flowed to the Arab Afghani fighters to participate in the war on the same side of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Bin Laden’s position was not limited to backing the Yemeni fighters but he strongly condemned the KSA’s opposition to war, and this increased the tension in the relation between them (9).

Ideologically, Bin Laden looked at the Yemeni Union War as his sacred own war, as it targeted  the remnants of the Communist camp in the region from one hand, and paved the way for applying Sharia in Yemen, on the other hand, i.e. it simultaneously hits both “separation and atheism”. Strategically, Bin Laden described the failure of Ali Salem Al Beidh’s move saying: “the coup, implemented by the Socialists in Yemen, failed due to their haste in launching it without completing its success credentials- such as securing the surrounding tribes’ loyalty. This failure came although they were a state that had its military, security and financial components as well as receiving  support from  the West, led by the US, and from Arab states, led by Riyadh. The most important motives behind their haste were the increase in assassination by jihadists or the funds of the president who wooed them”.(10)

The camp of former President Saleh and his Islamist and tribal allies won the 1994 war, but bin Laden was unable to exploit this victory in a perfect way, as in the same year, the KSA stripped him of his Saudi citizenship and froze all his assets. Moreover, the political pressure on the Bashir regime increased to extradite Bin Laden and his men. In Khartoum, Bin Laden was a target of several assassination attempts, pushing him to return to Afghanistan in 1996, (11) where he launched a new phase of violent jihadism. 

World Resistance and the safe haven

The Second Jihadist Immigration to Afghanistan was the actual birth moment of what us know today as Al Qaeda Organization. This was shown in 3 levels: 

Firstly, on the theoretical level, Washington was on the top of the hostility list. In 1996, Bin Laden called for jihad in the country of the Two Holy Mosques, two years before he declared the World Islamic Resistance Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders in 1998. 

On the organizational level, there was a final merge between Bin Laden, who was the Emir of the Arab Afghans, and the Jihad Organization, led by Ayman Al Zawahiri. A number of local jihadist groups joined them after being mobilized to face Washington as part of Bin Laden’s vision which priotirized the agressor enemy(Al Sael) over (AL Hael enemy).

As for the operational level, the Qaeda launched its first specific operations against the US interests in Africa through two operations in “Nairobi ''and “Dar Al Salam” in 1998. Those operations convinced the American that Bin Laden constituted for them an essential threat which is not less dangerous than the Iranian arms in the region. The two operations acted as a Sunni simulation for a similar Shiite jihadist operation that targeted the American Embassy in Beirut, and pushed the US to withdraw from Lebanon. It was also simlar to the operation implemented by Hezbollah Al-Hejaz (Saudi Hezbollah) in the city of Al Khobar.

During that mature jihadist ideology, the strategic importance of Yemen increased in the eyes of Al Qaeda theorists (12) for 3 factors:
The geography, as Yemen,  like Pakistan, overlooks sea, and is characterized by its rough mountainous landforms, vital outlook of international navigation lanes, the weakness of its central state, and the most important  is its  closeness to the Islamic holy sites and oil production sources in the Gulf region.

The Demography, as Yemen has high population density, high poverty rate, tribal social formation which allowed the establishment of safe havens, and the recruitments of many fighters.

The Ideology, as the conservative and religious character of the Yemeni people facilitated the spread of Jihadist ideology, especially in light of the islamic expansion “Al Sahwa”. Qaeda theorists have been affected by the Prophit’s Hadith which heralded the emergence of the Aden Abyan Army.

In spite of the Yemen’s attractiveness, Bin Laden had been hesitant about the suitable time to establish a jihadist front there, as he was not sure if he enjoyed the support of the Yemeni Islamists in case of a decision to confront the government. Additionally, he was busy arranging his organizational status starting from Afghanistan, in light of his strong political and security cover made by the Taliban. Eventually, Bin laden preferred to keep the cohabitation status between the Qaeda and Saleh regime, which made Yemen a safe haven for the Arab Afghans, amid the severe restrictions they have been rejected to in Egypt, the KSA, Iraq and Libya (13). 

However, the jihadist activity  temptations continued in Yemen. In 1998. The “Aden Abyan Army” led by Abulhassan Al Mehdar emerged and began to deploy in the governorate of Abyan. Many considered this as a “Godly message” for the necessary military move to impose the model of the Islamic rule that is compatible with the Salafi-jihadist vision. Although Bin laden had previously disagreed  with Al Mehdar about the typical way to begin Jihad, and the fact that  Al Mehdar was not a member of Al Qaeda, Bin laden expressed alot of sympathy towards him, and strongly critizized the leaders of the Islamic Sahwa and the Yemeni regime for their hostile attitude against Al Mehdar (14).

On the other hand, the American military presence in Yemen escalated in the end of the 1990s, especially in Aden and the Bab Almandab Strait through their mobile naval bases. The American soldiers used periodically deploy in the Port of Aden, Ras Abbas Camp, and stay in the city’s hotels, which increased the temptation of targeting them (15).

The revolutionary epicenter: Afghanistan or Yemen?

The beginning of the third millennium witnessed a temporal change in the Qaeda’s strategy, due to the decline of the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan. Accordingly, Bin Laden was inclined to install the islamic emirate at the expense of its local rivals, after he pledged allegiance to Taliban Leader, Mullah Omar, and to satisfy by securing its being a supply base to the jihadist movement. This required the dissolution of the Northern Alliance, led by Ahmed Shah Massoud who was assassinated by Bin Laden in 2001.

In contrast, Bin Laden decided to move the global jihadist theatre to Arab Peninsula, through the strategic deployment in Yemen and the operational expansion in the KSA. The Qaeda was no longer relied upon  the solidarity support from the Islamic movements young members but began to establish an organizational local structure, led by Abu Ali Al Harithi, which affiliated with the General Leadership in Afghanistan.(his task included implementing the specific operations and paving the way for receiving the flow of jihadist leaders coming from Afghanistan.(16)

According to that plan, Bin Laden needed an event with tremendous resonance to drag the US into new wars in the region, that ultimately lead to its depletion and downfall like the Soviet Union pattern. He encountered another big obstacle represented in the Taliban's opposition to any big external operations.

Over 1989 and 1999, Bin Laden had to deny his direct responsibility  for  Nairobi” and “Dar Al Salam (17), in order not to cross the red lines which had been determined by the “Commander of the Faithful” Mullah Omar. As he was aware that the World Trade Center’s towers operation won’t be like its predecessors.  He had met, Days before it, with the organization’s most important leaders, and told them to prepare for the immigration to Yemen (18). Weeks after “the Battle of Manhattan”, Bin Laden emerged, in a meeting with Jazeera, in which he avoided admitting his direct responsibility for the operation, but he blessed it as part of his ideological plan which opposed the US. It was likely that he prepared himself to explicitly admit responsibility for the operation after his planned arrival to the Yemen Mountains.

Nevertheless, Bin Laden’s plan didn’t go well, as he had been surprised by a series of changes that forced him to alter his strategic approach: This included:

The intimacy between the Yemeni regime and the US, and the end of the cohabitation status between Jihadist and Saleh. In 2001, the Yemeni President travelled to Washington to meet George W, Bush. Yemen was declared as a partner in the International Coalition against Terrorism. It was clear that Saleh learned the lesson from what happened with his friend Saddam Hussein. The Saudi-Yemeni relationship began to take a cooperative path at that year after settling the borders file, and this had a positive effect on countering terrorism. 

The occupation of Afghanistan at the end of 2001, and the following occupation of Iraq showed Bin Laden’s success to drag the American Forces to the region, but Washington was the one who selected the regional conflict theatres, and it opted not to engage in Yemen.

Al Harithi’s assassination by an American raid using a drone in 2002(The same year he implemented another specific operation that targeted  French ship in the port of Mukalla), and pursuing the organization members, based in Yemen, or those who returned from abroad(such as Nasser Al Wuhayshi, who was extradited by Iran to the Yemeni authority in 2002), as well as the threats that targeted the safe havens of the organization in remote areas of Eastern and Southern Yemen (Marib, Al-Jawf, Shabwa, Abyan). 

In September 12th 2002, Bin Laden selected Yosri Fouda to confirm, through his investigative program “Sirri lil-Ghayah” (Top Secret), the Qaeda’s responsibility for the 11-9 Attacks. This was an explicit declaration of the disappearance of the political obstacles previously placed by the Taliban regarding foreign operations, and an indication of the return of the close alliance between it and Al-Qaeda to confront the American presence. 

As a result, Afghanistan restored its strategic value as a revolutionary epicenter against the American, and Yemen regained its historical position as “land of supply”(Ard Al madad). Consequently, Iraq became the main destination for the jihadist. 

Journalist and researcher in the affairs of armed groups

Photo: Al-Nahar

2-”Ramray” is the code name used by Bin Laden in his messages in Afghanistan as shown in Abbottabad Documents. Bin Laden's nickname was” Abu Abdullah”referring to his eldest son who decided to abandon his father in Sudan, as didn’t withstand their rough life there and returned to the KSA to work in one of his uncles’ companies.
3- Almarjie: Nabil Naeem, “I Was a Founder of Jihad Organization in Egypt” (
4- Turki Al Faisal: I met with “Bin Laden” and refused his request for Intelligence support in Yemen (
5-  The "Global Islamic Resistance Call", Abu Musab Al Suri:(page 775).
6- Al Qaeda.. The Secret Organization, Abdelbari Atwan, pahe 196
7- The total messages and directives of the Jihadist Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, the Jihadist Elite Media , page 216.
8- The "Global Islamic Resistance Call", Abu Musab Al Suri: (page 776).
9- 7-6-1994, the Advice and Reform Commission, Statement NO.3.
10-  Abbottabad Documents, Page 127.
11- 7- the total messages and directives of the Jihadist Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, the Jihadist Elite Media, page 221.
12-For more details, look at: “The Responsibility of Yemeni People towards the Muslims’ Holy Places and Wealth” Abu Musab Al Suri.
14- The "Global Islamic Resistance Call", Abu Musab Al Suri: (page 778).
15- For more details, please see the book titled :”the Arab-American Security and  Military Agreements and their Impact on the National Security, page 144.
16- Abdullah Haidar “the Path of the AQAP in Yemen (
17- For more, see Bin laden’s meeting between these two years, in the book:  the total messages and directives of the Jihadist Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, the Jihadist Elite Media 
18-The "Global Islamic Resistance Call", Abu Musab Al Suri: (page 777).

AQAP9/11ManhattanUSAAl QaedaAl JazeeraYemen WarMulla OmarSouth YemenSaleh RegimeTalibanAfghanistan