Sanaa, Yemen – In an unassuming mosque, adorned only with graffiti and ancient stained-glass windows, about 30 women and children sat on the floor, listening to a sermon. The women wore black robes, but the veils that usually covered their faces were flipped up.
They listened to Imam Sami al-Fayek on a speaker, while the men congregated downstairs. The imam spoke of the war in northern Yemen, and his hope that the government would end it.
“We ask God to make them stop,” he said, “Because a lot of people have been killed.”
When the imam finished his thoughts, he began the traditional melodic Friday prayers. The women sat up, cupped their hands in front of them and responded gently, asking God to forgive them their sins. When the service ended, they turned to each other, shook hands affectionately, and said “Assalam alykum,” peace be upon you.
Later in the afternoon, in a crisp white thobe and black turban, al-Fayek stood outside the beige brick building talking to friends and neighbors in the bright sun. He was grateful, he said, because the capital Sanaa is peaceful. “Here, in our area, it is safe.”
That sense of security is rare in a country that is facing a Shiite insurgency, a secessionist movement in the south, a looming water crisis and crushing poverty. And now the government is shifting its focus to fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s organization.
The capital Sanaa, surrounded by mountains, has been one of the few places that escaped the strife plaguing other regions of the country. But the mood in the mosques and markets reflects the city’s unease about what the new-found focus on Al Qaeda might bring. Many in this small, desperately poor country are afraid they will become collateral damage in the next front of America’s “war on terror.”
“Everybody is worried about the future,” said Ammar al-Maktri, an accountant who is friends with al-Fayek. “About Al Qaeda and the Americans.”
Al-Maktri, like many Yemenis, has followed the events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan on the news. He believes that if the U.S. tries to battle it out with Al Qaeda in Yemen, it will be the Yemeni people who suffer most.
For weeks now, the chatter on the streets of Sanaa has focused on just how far the U.S. intends to go in this fight.
In December, U.S.-ordered air strikes killed at least 60 suspected Al Qaeda militants, Yemeni officials said. And since a Nigerian born radical, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a plane over Detroit after living in Yemen, it has become clear that the U.S. intends to retaliate.
Despite the fears in Sanaa, it is very unlikely that there will be a significant U.S. military presence in Yemen, said Steve Heydemann, a vice-president at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a specialist in Arabic politics. Yemeni officials say U.S. soldiers would strengthen Al Qaeda by drawing Islamic extremists from abroad, and growing anti-Western sentiments at home.
It remains unclear though what form U.S. involvement might take, with options including aid, intelligence support and special operations. The current military presence in Yemen is small, limited to technical support, training and help with intelligence.
Other experts say even successful, low key special operations designed to target Al Qaeda leadership could strengthen anti-Western sentiment. Some kind of action on the ground appears to be inevitable, said Garry Clifford, a political science professor and foreign policy specialist at the University of Connecticut. There is no “loud drum beat” in the U.S. to send troops to Yemen, but a “persistent angry feeling that we ought to do something to retaliate,” he wrote in an email.
Outside the mosque, a small crowd gathered to discuss what is perceived as the looming possibility of greater U.S. military presence in Yemen.
American soldiers could become targets, said a local police cheif Tofik al-Jawfi, which would ruin the two nations’ friendly relationship. He said he could not stand the idea of foreigners coming to Yemen and getting hurt. “Between us and America are good relations,” he said. “They are our brothers.”
Al-Jawfi said the Yemeni army has more than enough resources to defeat Al Qaeda, and, in a pinch, the Yemeni population is heavily armed. “All Yemeni people have four or five guns in the house,” he said.
Yemenis insisted that reports are overblown about the dangers of life in their country.
In Sanaa’s medieval Old City, on the serene rooftop of Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies, Administrative Director Mohammad Saleh Risk said the media scares people away by only presenting one aspect of the country.
“New students are not coming,” Risk said. “They imagine Yemen is just a terrorist place.”
But Risk too said he was afraid of U.S. military involvement in Yemen. “People know what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “We don’t want [the Americans] to make the same mistake here.”
About half of the 23 million people in Yemen are under 15 years old, and young people — even those with a good education — have a hard time finding work. According to the CIA Factbook, 35 percent of the adults in Yemen are out of work.
“There are other things that could kill terrorism,” he said. “Young people have no jobs, and the government should fix it.”
In the cobblestone market bellow, 17-year-old Ahlam Aharhan agreed that young people are more likely to turn to extremism when they cannot find work. With bright brown eyes peaking out of her black veil, Aharhan seemed surprised when asked what she thought of America’s relationship with Yemen.
“Everybody should stay in his own country,” she said.