It shouldn't have come as a complete surprise to the Americans, because they have been issuing warnings for some time about security threats in the Middle East, and Yemen has been a particular focus. As far as the Yemeni people are concerned, there has been a lot of controversy emerging about the developing military relationship between Yemen and the United States.
"In 1991, relations with the U.S. were really bad because of Yemen’s attitude to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. But relations have gradually improved, and in 1998 there were some high-level visits to Yemen by people like General Zinni (then U.S. commander for the Gulf) and soon after you had the first joint exercises. The Islamists and others in Yemen have been putting out the story that the Americans want to establish a military base in Yemen (Aden used to be a British military base), and that has been quite a useful thing for them to use to inflame anti-American sentiments."
Has Yemen been a haven for terrorist organizations such as Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida?
Well, Bin Laden’s family originally came from South Yemen, so he has quite a longstanding interest in the country. After the Afghan war, a lot of the Arabs who’d been fighting there returned to various Arab countries, and quite a number came to Yemen. Because of the security situation here they were able to carry on training here and using the country as a base for operations elsewhere. It’s quite a rugged country, and weapons are freely available, so there’s been quite a lot of that.
"At the end of 1998, there was an organization in the south called the Islamic Army of Aden Abyan, which included some veterans of the Afghan war and people from various other Arab countries, and its aim was to introduce Islamic government in Yemen, and in the process oppose American influence. They see Yemen as one of the last places in the Arab world not under the influence of what they call 'the United Snakes of America,' and they’re trying to prevent growing American influence in Yemen. So there’s quite a history of this sort of thing going on.
"To carry out an attack of this sort would obviously involve quite a bit of planning, because people obviously wouldn’t know when an American warship was coming in to Aden to refuel. They’d probably have a general idea of the kind of frequency of it. So it would involve somebody at least two people getting jobs in the port, working on the ship that helped with the refueling. It looks also like rather a huge quantity of explosives was used, and so there would have to be some other people involved in getting the explosives onto the boat."
What position has the Yemeni government taken towards supporters of Bin Laden and other terrorist groupings?
"Officially they oppose it, though, again, there’s a bit of history to this. North and South Yemen were unified in 1990. South Yemen (where Aden is located) had been run by Marxists before that, and had been on the American list of terrorist sponsoring countries. After the unification, that ceased to apply, but there were tensions between the regimes on the two sides of Yemen that formed a sort of coalition government.
"In order to fend off the socialists from the south, the people from the north allowed Islamist terrorist activity to continue in various parts of the country. At that stage it served the purposes of the North not to stop these people. It’s a all a bit of a nod and a wink situation. They just didn’t try very hard to stop it. There was a war between North and South in 1994 which the North won in a matter of eight weeks. Since then, the North has been trying to clamp down, but not always very successfully. Yemen is a very difficult place to police. There’s one police station per 100,000 people, and it’s also a place where weapons can be bought very easily. There’s a large weapons market outside the capital, Sana'a, where you can buy all sorts of things up to armored cars and rocket propelled grenades. So it’s difficult to stop people, particularly when there’s so many remote areas, from carrying weapons, simply because there isn’t enough state security. Those who want to use it as a base for other things can quite often get away with it."
Does this attack carry the fingerprints of a Bin Laden-type operation?
"It points to an Islamist attack because of the suicide element. That points to groups with an idea of martyrdom. I think Bin Laden tends to be blamed for everything, and that’s a bit silly. I think it’s most likely to be local. There are an awful lot of people who’d have reasons to oppose U.S. military involvement in Yemen, mostly on the Islamist side. There are lots of small groups, and any one of them could have done it. The timing could be quite significant, because there have been large demonstrations and ‘days of rage’ in Yemen because of what’s happening in Palestine. I think we’re going to see some more tomorrow (Friday) here after today’s events."