Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar has worked with President Ali Abdullah Saleh to run Yemen since the late 1970s, making him both an unlikely turncoat to push his former leader from power as well as a controversial figure to shepherd a transformation from what by many accounts is a failed state to a modern democracy.
U.S. officials and many Yemenis view him as a strongman who is potentially compromised by allegations of corruption and a checkered background in dealing with Islamic extremists. But his close association with Saudi Arabia, which is helping to broker a solution to Yemen’s current political crisis, as well as his long history of patronage among his troops and his tribe have helped push him into the position of leading a possible transitional government after 32 years of President Saleh’s rule.
Gen. Ahmar, the long-time commander of Yemen’s Northeastern region, is around 60 years old and hails from the same village as President Saleh. He worked with Mr. Saleh to defeat what once had been the Soviet-backed separatist state of southern Yemen. He also brutally put down renewed separatist threat in the 1990s by deputizing religious Islamic warriors who had returned home from fighting in Afghanistan to help solidify President Saleh’s position as leader over a re-united Yemen.
Those victories have earned him the reputation of the country’s most powerful military leader – and until the last few weeks he was also considered the country’s second-post powerful political figure, behind the president, for his deft touch in negotiating Yemen’s tangled web of tribal and religious politics.
His tribal outlook and reliance on force to solve problems makes many Western diplomats wary of seeing him come to the political forefront in Yemen, a country widely considered on the brink of failure as a result of President Saleh’s similar leadership qualities.
Gen. Ahmar has been “always sort of in the shadows as the back-up dictator,” said a Western diplomat in the region. Even if President Saleh steps down, “you could have a Yemen that looks a lot like Yemen,” the diplomat said.
Another legacy of President Saleh’s rule -- a weak central government – has bolstered Gen. Ahmar’s own prestige and fortune, according to diplomats. The lack of government control over the far-flung Yemeni regions means that he and the country’s other four regional commanders have duel roles as army chiefs and local governors, allowing them to channel government funds to residents under his command for development projects – or withholding funds as punishment should they work against his interests.
People who have conducted business with Gen. Ahmar describe him as a cross between an armed warlord and business oligarch. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable written in August 2005 and released by WikiLeaks, Gen. Ahmar is considered a “major beneficiary of diesel smuggling,” one of the top smuggling operations that economists and analysts estimate is worth up to $10 billion per year.
Smuggling is one of Yemen’s major national security problems and U.S. military officials have long criticized their Yemeni counterparts for allowing weapons and other contraband to be smuggled from the Horn of Africa countries like Somalia through Yemen and beyond. Intelligence officials say that Al Qaeda has effectively used these smuggling conduits to move men and material from Yemen to Somalia, increasing the scope and effectiveness of their terrorist network in Africa.
U.S. diplomats have had minimal contact with Gen. Ahmar, in part, current and former officials believe, because Mr. Saleh saw him as a potential rival and wanted to prevent him from developing close ties with outside powers like the U.S. Gen. Ahmar’s forces, the First Armored Division, is not a recipient of U.S. military aid or counter-terrorism training, according to officials.
Gen. Ahmar is also considered to be a conservative religious man, with leanings toward the Salafi school of Islam that many Saudis practice. Under his command in northern Yemen, Saudi preachers have made dramatic inroads in building mosques and conservative religious schools like the type found in Pakistan. Residents of the area complain that sectarian tensions in the region have risen as a result of the Saudi-run and funded schools, and helped ignite recent bouts of fighting between rebels known as the Houthis and the central government.
Gen. Ahmar led the battles against multiple Houthi uprisings in the past few years. Saudi Arabia intervened in the clashes in late 2009 on the side of Gen. Ahmar.
The Houthi insurgency is one of the three internal security problems that have threatened Presdient Saleh’s government. The other two are Al Qaeda cells which have found safe haven in tribal areas in the oil-rich south, and an autonomous southern separatist movement that is fueled in party by grievances among southerners that President Saleh refused to share power with them after the two Yemens were unified and fought a civil war in the 1990s.