In Yemen, a WikiLeaks Whiskey Controversy

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh

The WikiLeaks revelation making the rounds in the Yemeni capital Sana'a is the one where President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in an apparently jovial conversation with U.S. General David Petraeus, offers to lie to his countrymen about the perpetrators of drone strikes in the Yemeni countryside. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," Saleh said at the January meeting, according to a cable sent by the American ambassador at the time, Stephen Seche. The cable also reports that Saleh complained of drugs and weapons smuggling from Djibouti across the Red Sea, but stated he was content to have whiskey bootlegged in, "provided it's good whiskey."

The consensus seems to be that the President is more likely to be hurt by his flippant quote about whiskey smuggling than his discussion about covering up U.S. drone attacks against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on Yemeni soil. First, because whiskey, like all alcoholic beverages, is forbidden by Islam; and, secondly, because most Yemenis have long since assumed that the U.S. has a direct role in counter-terrorism efforts in their country than Saleh's government was letting on. That U.S. drones are abuzz over parts of the country "is well known to al-Qaeda and to the tribes that shelter them," says Mohammed Aish, a researcher on extremist groups in Yemen.

Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the independent Yemen Times, says Saleh's critics among the country's elite — herself included — may consider using the drone-related diplomatic cable to mount some sort of legal action against the President, but she doesn't hold out much hope that it will damage him. To the majority of Yemenis, she says, "it will make no difference whatsoever."

But the notion of their President making jokes about booze will anger many more people, al-Sakkaf said. The Islamist opposition Islah party will likely use it as a political stick to beat him. And it will dent the reputation for righteousness Saleh has been trying to cultivate in recent years — by praying more publicly, making a much-publicized hajj pilgrimage, and building a giant mosque in Sana'a. Businessman Haitham al-Anmi, who is a strong backer of the President (and the son of a former Prime Minister), agrees that many Yemenis will be offended by the whiskey quote. "People don't like to think of their President associated with alcohol," he says.

Still, the fact that most Yemenis already know that the U.S. conducts drone strikes in their country doesn't mean they like it. The cable revelation simply adds to the resentment against U.S. meddling. After the attempted 2009 Christmas Day bombing over Detroit (the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab of Nigeria, admitted to training in Yemen), Washington started equipping and training Yemeni counter-terrorism forces. In June, Amnesty International released photographs of what it said was the remains of a U.S.-made cruise missile used in a December strike against a suspected al-Qaeda base in Abyan, an arid province in south Yemen; the attack killed 50 civilians. "These operations widen the circle of people who hate the U.S. and anyone affected by these strikes will be prone to sympathizing with al-Qaeda, not because they like the group but due to the common enemy," says human rights lawyer Khaled al-Ansi.

Sana'a has repeatedly denied direct U.S. operations fearing just such a backlash. Shoqi al-Qadha, a member of parliament from the main opposition party, Islah, says confirmed American military action in Yemen will rouse anger because it validates as fact the killing of Yemenis by the U.S. Any direct action from the U.S., he says, "draws people to violence." Indeed, AQAP is unlikely to let either drones or whiskey pass as just jokes. "Al-Qaeda will use anything they can get their hands on to get people to see Saleh as a puppet of the West," says Ahmed al Zurqa, an expert of the terrorist group established in January 2009.

As for the willingness of the government to lie, well, that is no surprise to people who follow local politicians. Qadha says he certainly wasn't shocked by the another leaked cable that had Yemen's deputy prime minister joking that he too had lied to parliament about U.S. strikes. "With regard to the deputy prime minister lying to parliament," Qadha sighs, "this is something we have gotten used to here."