When Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered his military on March 18 to fire on peaceful protesters calling for his resignation, he sealed his fate. A wave of military, government and diplomatic defections, led by his long-time ally First Armored Brigade Commander General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, rocked his regime.
However, although al-Ahmar announced that he was appalled by the use of force and vowed to defend the constitution, his decision was anything but altruistic. The disgruntled general, who has long-standing ties to the type of jihadists that the US is battling in Yemen, merely sought to settle a score with the president’s family.
The relationship between al-Ahmar and Saleh extends to their youth, with Saleh’s mother having had a second marriage to al-Ahmar’s uncle. Though they are not half-brothers, this frequent, if mistaken reference, indicates their closeness. Al-Ahmar has long been considered either Saleh’s right-hand man or the country’s hidden president.
When the Nasserite party attempted to overthrow Saleh less than 100 days into his presidency, al-Ahmar defended him and quashed the coup. In 1994, his units put down a secessionist movement in the south.
However, as Saleh prepared the way for his son Ahmad — the head of the Presidential Guard — to succeed him, he began to marginalize al-Ahmar. In 2009, Saleh sacked al-Ahmar’s key backers, including Central Command Chief General al-Thahiri al-Shadadi and Lieutenant General Haydar al-Sanhani.
Al-Ahmar has also not benefited from the military aid that the US lavished on Yemen in the wake of al-Qaeda’s failed Christmas Day plot in 2009 to down a US airliner. While the Central Security Service, led by Saleh’s nephew Yahya, has received millions of US dollars to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Ahmar has been left out of the economic bonanza.
At the same time, al-Ahmar’s dismal performance in spearheading the war against the Houthi-led sectarian rebellion in the north made him a convenient scapegoat for the regime’s failures. The regime’s desire to get al-Ahmar out of the picture became clear during the last round of fighting against the Houthis in 2009-2010, when Saudi Arabia began bombing the rebels.
According to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Yemeni officials gave the Saudis the coordinates for al-Ahmar’s command center, telling them that it was a Houthi camp.
His relationship with Saleh frayed and his influence waning, al-Ahmar understood that his loyalty to Saleh had become a liability. So his decision to abandon Saleh stemmed less from his love of the constitution and democracy than from his desire to even the score with the president and his son, with whom he has long clashed.
Al-Ahmar’s relationship with jihadists is a source of serious concern. He is married to the sister of Tariq al-Fadhli, a Yemeni who fought alongside al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan. When more than 4,000 Arabs returned from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, al-Ahmar organized them into units and deployed them in the 1994 civil war in Yemen.
One jihadist who trained in al-Qaeda’s camps and met bin Ladin, told me that upon his return from Afghanistan, he was invited to meet al-Ahmar’s associates and was given a monthly stipend. During a 1999 trial of Yemenis convicted of kidnapping 16 Europeans, it emerged that the group’s ringleader called al-Ahmar during the ordeal. Though his ties to jihadists may be expedient rather than ideological, they are deeply worrying.