Foreigners in Yemen see terrorism worries as overblown

Elena Rezneac’s lavender eye shadow shimmered in the sun outside a crowded Internet cafe in Yemen’s capital city. The 21-year-old Moldovan student giggled as she pushed her sunglasses up above her blond ponytail.

“If you read about Yemen in the news lately, you think there are terrorists running around and bombs in all the streets,” she said. “But when you are here, it’s calm. I have to go online to remember there’s a war going on.”

Others among the thousands of foreign aid workers and students of Arabic who live in this impoverished nation expressed a similar view.

The problems Yemen faces are long-standing and significant, they said, but at least on the surface, it’s not the nest of terrorism it seems in some Western news reports.

“It’s pretty much completely normal around here,” said Ramon Scoble, a water management engineer for GTZ, a German development agency, who has lived and worked in Yemen for decades. “It’s not that the problems aren’t real. It’s that they aren’t new.”

Yemen has been in the spotlight since Christmas Day, when a Nigerian man who had studied Arabic in Yemen during the fall was stopped by fellow passengers as he allegedly attempted to set off explosives on a plane bound for Detroit from Amsterdam.

Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a branch of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network that has prospered in Yemen in the last few years -- and been the target of air and ground raids by U.S.-backed Yemeni forces since mid-December.

The U.S., Japan and several European nations closed their embassies in Yemen in recent days because of security threats. The U.S. Embassy in Sana has since reopened, said Deborah Smith, a spokeswoman for the facility. She noted that no U.S. personnel had been evacuated from the country and that threats to -- and attacks on -- U.S. interests here go back at least a decade.

On Wednesday, Yemeni authorities announced the arrest of three men linked to the latest threats.

Yemen’s Al Qaeda wing first appeared on Washington’s radar in 2000 when a motorboat packed with explosives slammed into the U.S. destroyer Cole in the port of Aden, killing 17 sailors. In 2008, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy, killing at least 16 people, including an American.

The last three years have also seen attacks on tourists from nations including South Korea and Spain. Attacks on international aid workers have been rare, although in June the bodies of two German nurses and a South Korean teacher were found in a mountain hideaway of Islamic militants in northwestern Yemen.

Except for heightened security precautions, the constellation of aid and relief organizations here is operating normally.

“We have strengthened our security methods, but at this time, all essential services are still in place,” said Andrew Knight, spokesman for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Yemen.

At Sana coffee shops frequented by Westerners, rumors about possible attacks persisted Wednesday, but the mood remained calm.

Most of the foreigners who come to Yemen are here voluntarily, after all, to study and work. Some are attracted by the distinctive architecture, the ancient traditions, the crispness of the Yemeni Arabic accent, and the country’s famous hospitality.

“It’s sort of a magical place in some ways,” said Rezneac, the Moldovan student. “It’s like landing in the 16th century. I feel like I’m not only in a different country, but on a whole different planet.”

Longtimers like Scoble, a New Zealander who is a leading authority on Yemen’s water issues, takes the current troubles in stride. The country was divided for decades and became a Cold War battleground when the south gained independence from Britain. After reunification two decades ago, civil war erupted, and today the nation remains in turmoil.

“Going back to the [1990] time of unity, Yemen has never been a settled country,” Scoble said. “There’s resistance against the regime and terrorism in pockets, but that’s always been there. Al Qaeda are the new kids on the block. But even they’ve been here for more than a decade.”

He fears that the spotlight on Al Qaeda could exacerbate Yemen’s problems by attracting more foreign militants, as well as foreign governments that want to intervene.

“The media reports are a little bit inflammatory,” Scoble said, “and I worry that some of it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In the last month, security officials in Yemen have voiced concern that Islamic extremists are bolstering their attempts to attack foreign -- especially U.S. -- targets. Such attacks would be in retaliation for the American-backed air and ground raids that began Dec. 17, which have killed dozens of alleged Al Qaeda operatives, according to the Yemeni government. Also worrisome are local news reports that six trucks loaded with explosives and weapons “disappeared” this week en route to Sana.

Still, Edward Prados, director of an American nonprofit educational organization in Sana and a longtime Yemen resident, downplayed the closure of the embassies in a letter to his employees.

More than any new developments, he cited the Obama administration’s priorities in combating terrorism, the failed jetliner attack and a delayed media reaction to Yemen’s ongoing security issues as the impetus for the new attention.

“There is nothing particularly exceptional about this closing,” he wrote, “except that Yemen is currently enjoying extensive media attention.”

Many expatriates working for international organizations in Yemen take classes on how to protect themselves, and they follow certain security precautions, said Rasha Aljundi, a Jordanian who works for CARE International in Yemen.

They’re advised to avoid fancy international hotels and other places where foreigners gather. They’re told to vary their routines in case they’re being watched. Many foreigners avoid throwing big parties, playing loud music at home or going out to eat with more than a few other foreigners.

“The aim is to avoid saying, ‘Hey! Look at me!’ ” said one British woman who has lived in Aden and worked for a local aid organization for more than a decade.

She asked not to be named, for her own safety. Like many foreign women in Yemen, she chooses to wear the abaya, a long, black gown, and a head scarf, to avoid drawing attention to herself.

“When I first moved here, people would yell at me on the street, maybe because I’m blond and it’s not something they see a lot,” she said. “Sometimes Western women are annoyed by wearing the hijab, but you have to think of it as making your life easier.”

“You get used to it after a while,” said Aljundi, who found Lebanon from 2005 to 2008 much more dangerous. “I’m looking around Yemen thinking, ‘Really?’ ” she said. “I’ve seen worse.”

Most foreigners live in either Sana or Aden, the two major cities, where kidnappings are rare.

A trip through the countryside requires permission from the government, which is difficult, sometimes impossible, to get.

That’s partly because Yemeni officials don’t trust the patchwork of tribal authorities that rule a large part of the country, and that kidnap foreigners to use as bargaining chips in negotiations for public services or prisoner exchanges.

Many parts of the country -- including Saada province, where a Shiite Muslim rebellion against the Yemeni government has erupted -- are off-limits.

Some Westerners who live and work in Yemen have made a decision to stay put for the sake of a country they’ve grown to appreciate.

“I read about these issues every day, but I will not leave unless I have to,” said Stephan Daus, 22, a blond, blue-eyed Norwegian who studies Arabic in Sana. “From a humanitarian perspective, the situation will get worse if we surrender to the threats of Al Qaeda.”

Besides, he joked, “I’ve already paid my tuition through June.”

Edwards is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.