Clashes in Crater and Media Misinformation


Wed, 13-10-2021 10:12 AM, Aden Time

Fernando Carvajal (South24) 

A new round of clashes in Aden exposed a major problem contributing to escalation across Yemen, misinformation through media coverage of events. The clashes sparked in Crater between Aden security forces and rogue officer Imam ‘al-Nubi’ Mohammed Ahmed Abdo al-Salwi, former commander of Camp20, quickly escalated into a fight between political factions dragging regional powers into a new media war. The armed crashes contained to a neighborhood in Crater threatened more than the lives of neighbors. Yemen media, inside and outside, quickly spread a narrative of intra-southern battles, instantly spreading across headlines from regional and Western media outlets, pinning coalition partners against each other. 

The two-day battle sparked by a jail break led by al-Nubi’s men, and kidnapping of a police official, coincided with escalating tensions in Shebwa and deteriorating relations within the framework of the 2019 Riyadh Agreement. The timing of the jail break was suspect, along with type of weapons and intensity of the fight. Videos posted on social media claimed al-Nubi’s men were using brand new high caliber weapons, including grenade launchers from locations near buildings owned by Imam al-Nubi. Security Belt forces were deployed around the al-Taweelah neighborhood in Crater, leading to a sort of proxy fight between pro-Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces and the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Sunni Islamist party al-Islah. 

The nuances of the conflict were lost as media outlets rushed to report on rising tensions in the interim capital of Yemen. A careful tracing of initial reporting out of Aden, headlines adopted by Gulf media outlets and follow-up coverage by the like of Reuters, AP and Washington Post, provides a better understanding on how misinformation makes its way from among journalists affiliated with rival outlets to the regional bureaus of Western mainstream media outlets. The flow of information from anti-STC local media to their affiliates in Gulf outlets like Al-Arabiya, Arab News, Aljazeera and even Sharq al-Awsat expands through stringer journalists working with Western outlets. In this case, a number of pro-Islah outlets began the flow of misinformation, reaching social media outlets, and then spread through affiliates working as stringers for Western media networks. It was not so much the complexity of the conflict itself, since some outlets delved into the details of Southern factions, but rather the approach to focus on Southern forces as to depict their responsibility for instability in Aden as an actor driving events, as opposed to being the target of escalation. 

Conflict Background 

As with any other subject or specific events anywhere in Yemen, the events of 1 October in Crater were not so simple to explain. The background to the events demands understanding of the actors involved, indeed complicated details that distract from news reporting to a general audience with minimal if any knowledge of the country. Yet, this is what is needed if one is to contribute to conflict resolution, recognize the local perspective or at least not directly contribute to escalation of the conflict. 

To start, observers must understand that the province of Aden is a highly contested area in Yemen. One of the country’s smallest provinces, Aden did not only serve as the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) from 1967 to 1990, but also a Crown Jewel of the British Empire from 1839 to 1967. Its strategic value was recognized by Sana’a-based Zaydi Imams for centuries, regarding Aden as the “Eye of Yemen”. President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi declared Aden the interim capital on 21 March 2015 after fleeing Sana’a following start of Houthi consolidation of power in the country’s Capital. The province has been at the center of conflict over the past three decades, beginning with the short-live Civil War of 1994, followed by rise of the secessionist Southern Movement (al-Hirak) in 2007, the ‘invasion’ of Aden by the Houthi/Saleh alliance in 2015, and most recently the fight between secessionists and al-Islah party who attempts to establish a center of power after being expelled from Sana’a by Houthis and the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (d. 2017) in September 2014.

While two main actors engaged each other on October 1st, the clashes were part of a wider conflict over control of Aden and competition across Southern provinces. First, Imam al-Nubi is a well-known figure from al-Taweelah neighborhood in Crater, Aden. Interviews with officials and relatives of victims of al-Nubi’s crimes conducted in Aden in October 201, and subsequent conversations with people in Aden, provided information on his rise as a local preacher and youth leader affiliated with al-Islah party, which he first gravitated towards in early 2007, according to those familiar with his past. People in Aden point to al-Nubi’s role in the conflict with Hirak youth in 2011 during the Arab Spring, when he is blamed for leading a group of al-Islah youth. In 2015, al-Nubi led an armed group fighting against Houthi/Saleh forces, eventually contributing to their withdrawal from Crater and Greater Aden. Al-Nubi moved quickly to take control of Camp20, whose name commemorates the uprising of 20 June 1967 in Crater, and established a base for his armed group in a highly symbolic location. 

The headlines referencing an intra-secessionist conflict extend from al-Nubi’s role fighting Houthi/Saleh forces and his link to the Southern Resistance formed to protect Aden following liberation in August 2015. The Resistance incorporated all militia formed to fight Houthi/Saleh forces, including those led by Mukhtar al-Nubi, Imam’s half brother and former commander of troops in al-Dhale and then the Command Axis at Abyan. Media reports simply focused on Imam’s role in 2015 and his relation to a commander of Security Belt forces aligned with the STC. While Imam al-Nubi’s command of Camp 20 was formalized by the Southern Resistance in 2015, and later recognized by the Ministry of Interior under President Hadi along with Security Belt forces, Imam al-Nubi was never aligned with Hirak or other southern secessionist elements in Aden. His role in Crater since 2015 was to establish a foothold for troops affiliated with al-Islah and balance relations with Hirak, and later the STC to counter any potential moves toward secession. Imam al-Nubi not only profited from his position as security commander, but also became an enforcer for the anti-secessionists and religious actors. A number of investigations into cases of torture and assassinations until he was removed from command in October 2017 focus on targeting of Hirak activist youth or those self-declared atheists in Aden. 

Escalation and Media Role

Indeed, it would be a difficult task to explain the nuances of such a complicated conflict. Yet, it would have been very simple to stay away from aggravating the rivalry with such level of misinformation in reports from October 1st. Southerners believe the problem with foreign media outlets begins with the dominance or dependence on journalists and stringers from ‘northern province’, essentially obstructing unbiased reporting on events or issues related to South. 

A quick online search for English language news on clashes in Crater leads to multiple headlines pointing to a conflict “between secessionists”. This was the product of a dual prong approach to reporting on the conflict. The flow of misinformation began with local media outlets publishing in Arabic, along with reporting through social media, without a doubt focused on a negative image of Southern forces. For example, Belqees Channel, a media company based in Istanbul and founded by Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman was one of the first media outlets to report on clashes. Al-Sahwa news and Yemen Shabab news, Islah affiliates, and al-Mahriyya, also based in Istanbul, produced much of the initial reporting in Arabic. These outlets are highlighted for their level of influence and high ratings among Yemeni and other Arabic speaking audiences in the Middle East and elsewhere.

From here we begin to see how the narrative is then adopted by Arabic and English language regional media outlets such as Al-Arabiya, Arab News, Aljazeera and even Sharq al-Awsat. Their headlines adopted the description of the conflict as an intra-STC fight. The content of the articles published painted Imam al-Nubi as a secessionist and STC affiliate, some pointing to affiliation with Security Belt forces as well. This depiction of al-Nubi appears to have transplanted Mukhtar’s background to his half-brother by mere blood relation, rather than facts from Imam al-Nubi’s background and political affiliation. Islah affiliated media outlets never mentioned any relation between Imam al-Nubi and the party, or security forces linked to the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated party in Yemen. It would be naïve to imagine that such high-profile Yemeni media outlets would lack information and historical background on the actors involved in the clashes. This reporting sparked a second front for Southerners who used the headlines to support their claims of partisanship in media reports and to highlight the scope of the political conflict between Islah and pro-STC forces.

Furthermore, headlines and content published by Western outlets such as Reuters, AP and Washington Post, Garda World, Yahoo News, ABC News, also mimicked the process adopted by Gulf media outlets. The narrative created by rival of the STC quickly trickled upward to Western media bureaus, apparently without any further vetting of information or unique reporting. This process, clear to Arabic or English-speaking southern audiences everywhere, added evidence to widespread views of a hostile environment feeding the ‘us against them’ narrative. The already highly skeptical southern audiences merely pointed to the level of misinformation and deteriorating credibility of foreign media outlets. Southerners began to blame Western media for publishing simplified partisan narratives advancing the agenda of a particular political party. 

There is no doubt the bulk of reporting on the two-day clashes in Crater was lopsided, and the failures by Western media, most of all, clearly illustrate a major problem when looking for a path toward any peace deal between deeply entrenched actors. Reporting contributed to escalation in the political conflict, and served to diminish credibility of Western media, leaving southerners further alienated searching for greater understanding of the Southern Cause among a wider, global audience. The deeper impact from this incident was most clear when diplomatic missions and UN statements also failed to address the nuances of the conflict and simply left regional and international coverage to go unchallenged. 

Fernando Carvajal

Served as Armed Groups and Regional Expert on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen between April 2017 and March 2019.

- Photo was excerpted from a report by Qatar's Al Jazeera channel on the Crater events, October 3, 2021

South YemenSTCIslahHouthiAl-NubiCraterAljazeeraAl-ArabiyaBritish EmpireAli Abdullah SalehSecurity Belt