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The Power of Narrative: Yemen and the Detroit Airline Bomb Scare

January 3, 2010

There is no longer any such thing as fiction or non- fiction; there’s only narrative.

Yemen is back in the news this week after it was discovered that the would-be Detroit airline bomber spent some time studying Islam in Yemen, and since then the UK and US have announced plans to fund an ‘anti-terror’ police unit in Yemen.

Since the attempted bombing, Yemen has featured heavily in the news, in the context of the alleged dangers of ‘radical Islamic schools’ in the country. For many years the media and politicians were undecided over how to ‘narrate’ Yemen to the public. It would be almost too easy to create a narrative around Yemen that would mirror Somalia or Pakistan: failed state, terrorism, al-Qaeda, and anti-Westernism. Anyone who has ever spent any time in Yemen knows that such a narrative is dangerously untrue, and here’s why…

Researchers and Yemen experts warned of the dangers of such a narrative: focusing on ‘terrorism’ and ‘al-Qaeda’ is not going to do anything to solve Yemen’s problems. On the contrary, placing Yemen in the public mind as a haven for al-Qaeda, and promoting policies that deal with ‘anti-terror’ will only exacerbate Yemen’s downslide. The security issues are intricately tied to the political and economic problems afflicting the resource-poor nation, and so it is important that a holistic understanding is achieved in order to provide a holisitc approach. Al-Qaeda’s recent ‘successes’ at establishing a stronger foothold in the country are almost entirely related to poverty rather than ideology: tribes who are often suffering under the unequal distribution of wealth and power by the Saleh regime are ‘bought out’ by al-Qaeda.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in recent years, it’s that many reporters are often much more ignorant than we think they are. And these are the people who have a big hand in creating the easily digestible narratives that often dictate policy. And Saleh’s regime is all too willing to run ahead with this narrative– after all, promoting your country as the new al-Qaeda hotspot means more Western money flowing in in the form of weapons and security forces to shut down anyone who isn’t happy with the status quo, and if there’s one thing Yemen has plenty of, it’s dissatisfied customers.

Yemen’s foreign minister has jumped on this narrative, warning the west of the presence of al-Qaeda in his country and that it “may plan attacks like the one we have just had in Detroit”. He went on to say:

We have to expand our counter-terrorism units and this means providing them with necessary training, military equipment, transportation– we are very short of helicopters.”

At the end of the day, poverty, not radicalism, is at the root of all of Yemen’s problems, including al-Qaeda. What is needed is not an anti-terror police or a counter-radicalization strategy, but an economic package that would encompass a political and economic reform agenda as well as a development agenda. The international community desperately needs to move away from the narrative of Yemen as a radicalized al-Qaeda cell, and towards a more anthropological developmentalist approach: one that recognises that Yemen’s tribal society is suffering under the current political and economic regime, and a new state model should be developed that would include regional autonomy, geographical decentralisation, and an equal share of resources between all of Yemen’s tribal communities.

Gordon Brown is holding an emergency summit on Yemen later this month. Here’s hoping he’s getting his daily dosage of ewz, because we’ve heard this story line before, and unless this newly created narrative surrounding Yemen is overturned, the story will only get more and more depressing.


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One Comment leave one →
  1. ontheborder permalink
    January 5, 2010 12:46 am

    excellent post!

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