December 15, 2009

IV. The Southern Movement: An Overview

Genesis and Make-up of the Southern Movement

According to most Yemenis interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the genesis of the current protest movement in south Yemen was a series of small-scale protests mounted in 2007 by an organization of military officers from the south who had been forcibly retired, calling for their reinstatement and increased pensions. These former officers formed the Society of Retired Military Officers (Jam’iyat al-‘Askariyyin al-Mutaqa’idin), and began a series of sit-ins and protest marches. Security forces almost immediately met the sit-ins and protests with violence and arbitrary arrests.

Widespread economic discontent and marginalization in southern Yemen led other elements of society to join the protest movement. Civil servants, many of whom had also been forcibly retired in 1994, joined almost immediately. There are an estimated 100,000 military and civil employees in the south who were forcibly retired after 1994, and their pension arrangements were at the core of the original protests in 2007.[20] Lawyers, academics, students, journalists, and many ordinary southerners broadened the scope of the protests. Soon, most of the southern branches of political parties, led by the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) but including the local branches of the Islah party, Nasserists, and Ba’thists, used their grassroots networks to mobilize support for the movement.[21] Demands now included more employment opportunities for southerners, an end to corruption, and a larger share of oil revenues for southern provinces.[22] As explained by one commentator, “There was a feeling that southerners were being excluded from the north’s patronage networks in business, politics and the military.”[23]

More traditional leadership structures, including tribal shaikhs, as well as many ordinary rural residents, joined the Southern Movement as well.[24] By early 2009, the movement had gained broad support in southern Yemeni society, and demands escalated to calls for outright secession and the re-establishment of an independent state in the south. A prominent Yemeni human rights activist described the process this way:

Now, by mid-2009, all of the southern factions demand secession from the north. The government in San’a only looks at how to stop these groups, not at how to solve the problems that have created them. There are elites in south Yemen who feel marginalized, but the groups they head represent real grievances of the people. The people want lower prices, better services, and more employment. That is the reason they line up behind the secessionist slogans.[25]

The Southern Movement has tried to develop some centralized structures in order to bring together the divergent elements participating in the protests. In June 2009, the Southern Movement reportedly appointed a “Council for the Leadership of the Peaceful Revolution of the South,”[26] which, according to persons interviewed by Human Rights Watch, consists of five officials, namely Hasan Ba’um of Hadhramawt, president of the Council of the YSP, Salah Shanfara of Dhali’, a YSP member of parliament, Nasir Nuba of Shabwa, head of the Retired Military Consultative Association, and Tariq al-Fadhli of Abyan, a tribal leader and ally of an Islamist faction, who recently joined the Southern Movement after many years as a key ally of President Saleh, in addition to Yahya Sa’id, a sociology professor at Aden University.[27]  

There appear to be many competing bodies and persons portraying themselves as the leadership of the Southern Movement, and it is unlikely that there is a single over-arching leadership body, but rather various locally and regionally organized groups that loosely coordinate their activities, but often act independently of one another. Human Rights Watch has been unable to determine the effectiveness of this leadership council or its current ability to operate as a body, given that all members are either in hiding or have fled abroad. Furthermore, numerous others introduced themselves to Human Rights Watch as “leaders” of the movement. The impression emerging from our contacts is of a loose movement with little internal cohesion.

Declared Nonviolence and Armed Clashes

Since the start of the protests in 2007, the Southern Movement has publicly insisted that it is peaceful, and has repeatedly rejected the use of armed resistance in achieving its goals.[28] The Yemeni authorities and the state-controlled press, on the other hand, have frequently accused the Southern Movement of harboring armed elements and have blamed deaths at protests on armed participants in the demonstrations.[29] 

According to a politician associated with the Southern Movement:

[W]e have faced a lot of violence from the state... Whenever there is a [major] rally, people are killed. But people in the movement are peaceful—and this is a historical development in a tribal society where everyone is armed. Most of the protesters have legal weapons at home, and they know how to use them, but we prefer to be peaceful.[30]

Human Rights Watch research indicates that the vast majority of large organized protests in southern Yemen, particularly those in urban centers such as Aden and Mukalla, have not involved armed protestors. Video footage from these urban protests, and many village-level protests, mainly show unarmed demonstrators at non-violent sit-ins and demonstrations. Eyewitness accounts collected by Human Rights Watch also claim that the majority of the protests have been non-violent. However, the main protests have seen violence from protesters, usually after security forces attempted to block the protests or fired into the crowd, drawing rock-throwing in response from demonstrators. On a few occasions, protestor violence included throwing incendiary devices such as Molotov cocktails and burning tires.[31] 

To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, there have, however, been at least two incidents involving armed clashes between armed men and the security forces, leading the Yemeni authorities to accuse the Southern Movement of harboring an armed component. Armed clashes in the Ahmarain mountains around Habilain some 100 kilometers northeast of Aden in late April and early May 2009 left several soldiers dead and civilians wounded. In July 2009 a clash in Zanjibar, the capital of Abyan province, left at least 12 persons dead.

There have also been sporadic incidents of violence against northern civilians in southern Yemen, indicative of increasing intercommunal tensions. In July 2009, three northern men were murdered in Radfan by suspected Southern Movement sympathizers. In the same month, protesters attacked, burned or looted northern-owned shops in Mukulla.

While still exceptional—and while contrary to the stated peaceful orientation and conduct of the bulk of the Southern Movement, including at protests and demonstrations organized by the Movement’s supporters—each of these incidents underlines the combustible nature of the situation and danger that violence may escalate. The armed clashes in particular show the potential for armed conflict throughout the south, and appear to be indicative of elements that sympathize with the goals of the Southern Movement but are prepared to pursue them by violent means.

Armed Clashes

Although Human Rights Watch was unable to visit the sites of the clashes at Habilain and Zanjibar, we interviewed persons about both incidents, and obtained extensive video material documenting these events.

April 28-May 7, 2009 clashes at Habilain

On April 28, the Yemeni army began moving new troops into the Ahmarain mountains of Habilain town, establishing military positions overlooking villages in the area and erecting new checkpoints. While some local villagers and townspeople reacted by organizing peaceful protests in Habilain, other elements carried out armed attacks on the remote military posts. According to media reports, the clashes resulted in the deaths of at least five security personnel and two armed persons.[32]  

Human Rights Watch obtained a videotape from a local journalist who had traveled with some of the armed men during the fighting, and we also interviewed the journalist himself. The videotape shows small groups of armed men firing AK-47 automatic rifles at military outposts located on remote mountain-tops, far away from the populated villages below.[33] An army position is then seen firing tank shells and artillery at a village below, with smoke rising from the impact of shells amidst the homes. The video also shows several civilian men who appear to have been wounded by the shrapnel from the army’s artillery attack on the village.[34]

One of the armed men on camera provides the journalist with his reasons for taking up an armed struggle:

We are fighting the thieves, the occupiers. Today, we ask, what unity—the unity of tanks above our homes? They have started the shooting. They have pillaged our land, consumed our wealth. We have no more patience for these oppressors, death is preferable.[35]

After about a week of clashes, on May 3, former Minister of Local Administration Abd al-Qadir Hilal came to Habilain to resolve the stand-off between the military and the local armed men.[36] An agreement between the local shaikhs, not the Southern Movement, and the military was reached to remove some of the recently erected military posts from the Ahmarain mountains, but it has only been partially implemented, according to local villagers. However, since then, armed attacks on the army in the area have largely ceased.[37]

The armed clashes in Habilain do not appear to be attributable to the Southern Movement, as the armed men carried out attacks on military targets in their own name and not in response to any calls for action by the Southern Movement. These armed men also did not use or claim cover of peaceful protests to launch their attacks.

July 23, 2009 clashes around the al-Fadhli compound in Zanjibar

Another violent clash took place on July 23, 2009, around the compound of Shaikh Tariq al-Fadhli, a former southern ally of President Saleh, which left at least 12 persons dead and at least 18 wounded.[38]

Al-Fadhli became an ally of President Saleh in the early 1990s and in the 1994 civil war fought on Saleh’s side against separatists in the south. He remained an important provider of “Arab-Afghan” fighters especially in the 1994 war  and a supporter to President Saleh ever since.[39] However, in April 2009 Al-Fadhli switched sides, and is reportedly the newest of the five leaders of the Council for the Leadership of the Peaceful Revolution of the South, which, as described above, claims to be the leadership body for the Southern Movement, formed in June 2009.[40] However, as he told Human Rights Watch in a telephone interview, he does not appear to be in agreement with the non-violent approach of other activists in the Southern Movement:

My brothers in the Southern Movement are not listening to me, but this regime doesn’t understand what political dialogue is, they only understand force. I am in favor of [armed] resistance and instituting a military movement.[41]

Al-Fadhli conceded that few in the Southern Movement agreed with his call for armed resistance, saying, “Frankly, I do not find any of our allies in favor of my opinion. All are unanimously in favor of [limited] self-defense and the peaceful option.”[42]

While al-Fadhli has stated that he joined the Southern Movement because south Yemen “is a case of a people being occupied and their wealth confiscated,”[43] he has rejected claims he wants to establish an Islamist regime in the south and has welcomed cooperation with Western countries.[44]

The occasion of the Zanjibar clashes was a July 23 “festival” that al-Fadhli organized to support the Southern Movement at his compound in Zanjibar, the capital of Abyan province, some 50 kilometers northeast of Aden. Video footage obtained by Human Rights Watch shows a very different picture from footage and accounts of other non-violent protests viewed by the organization.

The video shows a large crowd waving the flags of the pre-unity PDRY state (a secessionist symbol) and calling for secession. Armed men are clearly visible among the crowd, including raising their weapons at times in support of the speakers on the podium, as well as on a roof behind a large flag of the south.[45] Government security officers are seen in military and police vehicles at the outer edges of the crowd.[46] 

The video goes on to show exchange of fire between armed men around al-Fadhli’s compound and security forces. How the fighting broke out remains unclear.[47] In a telephone interview with Human Rights Watch, al-Fadhli denied official claims that his followers attempted to free detainees from the local prison, explaining that security forces had surrounded the protesters and closed all roads, leaving no room to go to the prison three kilometers away. Al-Fadhli told Human Rights Watch that an officer from Political Security was the first to open fire, on the protesters, and that other members of the security forces joined almost immediately thereafter.[48]

Video evidence collected by Human Rights Watch shows al-Fadhli’s armed men handling with apparent familiarity weapons that include automatic rifles (AK-47s) and shoulder-fired M-72 LAW missiles, an anti-armor or anti-tank weapon. The fighting at the al-Fadhli compound was a two-way battle between armed supporters of al-Fadhli and the security forces, and thus different from the unprovoked firing of live ammunition at peaceful protesters that had taken place at other protests (documented below). However, the involvement in such clashes of al-Fadhli, one of the purported leaders of the Southern Movement, represents a worrying escalation of the political situation.

Increasing tensions between southerners and northerners

There are increasing tensions between “southerners” and “northerners” in the south, who often see themselves as culturally distinct from each other. During interviews with Human Rights Watch, southerners often expressed strongly negative views of “backward” northerners, and occasionally even cursed (to Human Rights Watch) northerners passing in the street during meetings or interviews.

On occasions, these tensions have spilled over into targeted attacks. In Mukalla, protestors have attacked, looted, or burned businesses owned by northerners. Protesters accuse northern businessmen of siding with the security agencies in cracking down on protests, or even actively participating in crackdowns and violence against protesters. The state-sponsored Committees to Protect Unity, discussed elsewhere in this report, participated in violence against southerners, and the creation of such vigilante groups greatly increases the potential for intercommunal violence.

Another, this time deadly, incident was the killing of three northerners on the morning of July 10, 2009, in the Habil Jabr area of Radfan. Abd al-Hamid Sa’id al-Qatabi, 55, his two sons, Fayiz, 14, and Yasin, 19, and his son-in-law, Khalid Ali Abdullah, 25, were on their way home to their sweets shop in al-‘Askiriyya when gunmen stopped their car and shot them. Yasin al-Qatabi, who escaped injured after being left for dead, later told state-run television that his family had repeatedly received threats to leave the area:

We were told to meet Ali Saif [al-Shu’aibi] near his house in Habeel Jabr. Accompanied by three armed men, [al-Shu’aibi] interrogated my father, accusing him of collaborating with Yemeni intelligence and demanded that he leave the area because he was a northerner and didn’t belong. My father appealed to him to take everything and to let us go, but he insisted my father admit we were intelligence agents. Then, he ordered his men to shoot my father dead. They also killed my brother and uncle.[49]

Security forces said they were looking for four “criminals associated with the Southern Movement.”[50] Southern Movement leader Nasir al-Khubaji rejected any connection between the killings and his movement, saying “we have condemned this heinous crime against shopkeepers. We have no enmity against our brotherly northerners; they are oppressed like southerners.”[51]

Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Southern Movement

Yemen is home to a significant number of “Afghan-Arab” veterans of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, and Yemeni authorities have attempted to link the Southern Movement to al Qaeda, notably by accusing Shaikh Tariq al-Fadhli of colluding with al Qaeda. Southern Movement leader and former Member of Parliament Salah Shanfara rejected such links, saying, “We have no links to al Qaeda and we do not accept any such [violent] talk or position.”[52]

Al Qaeda in Yemen’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhaishi, has publicly expressed support for the Southern Movement. In a May 14, 2009 audio statement, al-Wuhaishi told the people of the south, “We in al-Qaeda organization support what you are doing to reject oppression and support you against the government.”[53]

Al-Wuhaishi may have been speaking only for his Yemeni groups, since comments a global al Qaeda leader made one month later distanced the group from supporting secession of southern Yemen. On June 22, 2009, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a member of the global al Qaeda group’s highest ranking Shura Council and identified as the “general chief” of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, denied al Qaeda’s support for southern secession. He explained that al Qaeda was fighting for the establishment of a unified Islamic state, first in Yemen, then of the Islamic world:

The origin [of our movement] is the unification of the entire Islamic nation and the countries of Islam... We do not support the separation [secession] ... Islamic governance will come and govern this great state instead of it being in schism.[54]

Some Yemeni political analysts and two foreign diplomats Human Rights Watch met dismissed claims of direct links between the Southern Movement and al Qaeda. One European ambassador called such allegations a “red herring” put out by government officials.[55]


[20]Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen, p. 216.

[21]See Susanne Dahlgren, “The Southern Movement in Yemen,” ISIM Review 22, Society & the State, Autumn 2008, p.51.

[22]Ginny Hill, “Economic Crisis Underpins Southern Separatism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Arab Reform Bulletin, June 2009,  (accessed June 29, 2009).

[23]Whitaker, The Birth of Modern Yemen, p. 216.

[24]As explained in this report, the “Southern Movement” is not a single well-organized organization with a clearly defined leadership, but rather a loose coalition of individuals and organizations. However, it is popularly known as the “Southern Movement” both inside Yemen and abroad, hence the use of the name in this report.

[25]Human Rights Watch interview with human rights activist, San’a, July 8, 2009.

[26]“Al-Dhali’ Meeting 12 June 2009,” Al-Dhiya’i post to Al-Yemen discussion forum, June 12, 2009, (accessed August 20, 2009).

[27]Human Rights Watch interview with Rashid Ajina, Aden, July 12, 2009. A differently named group, the National Council of Liberation and for the Restoration of the State of the South announced it would not recognize this leadership council. Taj Aden News Website, June 21, 2009, (accessed August 20, 2009). Just days later, one of the five members of the Council, Nasir Nuba, announced that he had not been present at the Dhali meeting where the Council had been formed, and instead claimed he was the President of the “Supreme National Authority for the Presidency of the South,” (Arabic) and that the Supreme National Authority “is the only entity authorized to speak on behalf of [the Southern Movement] and dialogue with any other party,” suggesting internal power struggles for control of the movement. (Statement of Brigadier Nasir al-Nuba, dated June 13, 2009, on file with Human Rights Watch.)

[28] See for example comments by Nasir Nuba: “We call on the people of the south to actively participate in this event [commemorating withdrawal of the last British troops] … while holding dear their civil values and civilized manners and peaceful means in changing opinion.” “The Supreme Council for the Liberation of the south and the Commission of the Southern Movement in Aden Call on SouthSoutherners to Celebrate Independence Day,” contribution by Nasr Asad to discussion forum Yemeni Council, November 21, 2008, (accessed October 29, 2009).

And comments by Yahya al-Shu’aibi on peaceful nature of the movement, in Muhammad Humaidi, “Deputy al-Shanfara: Depriving People of the South from Employment and Treasure and the Attempt to Obliterate its History and Identity Are Among the Most Extreme Types of Terrorism,” Al-Ayyam, September 24, 2008, (accessed October 29, 2009).

[29]See, for example, Hammoud Mounassar, “Yemeni president urges dialogue after deadly clashes,” AFP, May 21, 2009 (quoting President Saleh blaming “outlaws aiming to hit at the nation and its safety and to stir unrest” for deaths during a protest in Aden); “Aden Governor: No clashes between citizens and security,” Saba News, May 21, 2009 (Quoting Aden governor Adnan al-Jifri stating that armed persons who were part of “chaotic elements” who had “conducted unrest and sabotage acts” were responsible for the death of a protestor.); “One Killed, Four Wounded in Yemen Unrest,” Maktoob Business, July 25, 2009 (quoting Ministry of Defense website as blaming “anti-unity” activists firing from rooftops for causing casualties.

[30]Human Rights Watch interview with Nasir Ba-Habib, San’a, July 10, 2009.

[31] These incidents are described in more detail below. See Chapter: IV.Unlawful Use of Deadly Force Against Peaceful Protestors .

[32]Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Yasir, Habilain hospital, May 3, 2009, and with Salah Shanfara, member of parliament, al-Dhali’, and separately with Burkan Tanbah, Habilain, May 5, 2009. See also: “Broadening of Isolated Armed Confrontations and Rows of Tanks and Missile Launchers Arrive in Radfan,” Al-Ayyam newspaper, May 1, 2009, (accessed August 20, 2009).

[33]The armed men, in interviews with the journalist, refer to themselves as the “Red Wolves”—a reference to the Marxist-inspired National Liberation Front guerillas who fought British forces during the colonial period 1964-1967. See Vitaly Naumkin, The Red Wolves of Yemen: The Struggle for Independence (London: Oleander Press, 2004).


[35]Video tape on file with Human Rights Watch.

[36]Human Rights Watch interview with journalist Gha’id Nasr al-Radfani, Aden, July 11, 2009.

[37]On July 28, 2009, an apparent 2 a.m. ambush on a military checkpoint near Lawdar in Habilain province killed four soldiers, but this incident was in a different area from the earlier clashes and more likely related to the July 23 clashes at the al-Fadhli compound, described below.

[38]Some news accounts claimed that up to 16 people died in the fighting. According to the governor of Abyan, Ahmad al-Maisari, eight people were killed and 18, including six policemen, were wounded. Mohammed al-Kibsi and Abd al-Aziz Oudah, “Confrontations in Abyan Result in Tens of Deaths and Injuries,” Yemen Observer, July 25, 2009. However, doctors at the al-Razi hospital in Zanjibar and the May 28th Hospital in Aden told the Associated Press that their hospitals received ten corpses, and that two additional persons died from their injuries at the hospital. Ahmed Al-Haj, “Security Forces Kill 12 Protestors in Yemen,” Associated Press, July 25, 2009.

[39] John F. Burns, “Yemen Links to bin Laden Gnaw at F.B.I. in Cole Inquiry,” New York Times, November 26, 2000, (accessed Novembe r11, 2009).Al-Fadhli, who was an associate of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in 2009 rejected any links with al Qaeda in Yemen, saying his involvement in Afghanistan dates back more than two decades and that he now welcomes western support for South Yemen. Arafat Madayash and Sawsan Abu-Hussain, “Al Qaeda Calls for Islamic State in South Yemen,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 14, 2009, (accessed Octo ber 29, 2009).

Tariq al-Fadhli is a descendant of the British-appointed Sultan of Abyan, and his family acquired large land holdings during the era of British rule. . . He fought in Afghanistan during the Afghan-Soviet war, earning a reputation as a military leader of the Afghan-Arab fighters. Following his return to Yemen in 1993, al-Fadhli reportedly established training camps in southern Yemen for “Afghan-Arabs” – Arabs who fought in Afghanistan -- and his fighters attacked the PDRY government, which had nationalized his family’s lands. . . He was linked to a series of bombing attacks targeting socialist officials in November 1992. Authorities attempted to capture him from his mountain stronghold in Maraqisha, but were unable to overcome his defenses. . . See Gordon Waterfield, Sultans of Aden (London: Stacey International, 2002), Eric Watkins, “Yemeni Extremists Heed the Call,” BBC, December 30, 1998, and Whitaker, Birth of Modern Yemen, pp.111-113.

[40] See: Yasir Hasan, “Al-Khubaji Calls for Changing the ‘Leadership Council for the Revolution’ Because it is Not ’Untouchable’ and Has ‘Problems’,” Al-Masdar Online, (accessed October 29, 2009).

[41]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tariq al-Fadhli, Abyan, August 27, 2009.

[42]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tariq al-Fadhli, Abyan, August 27, 2009.

[43]Arafat Madayash and Sawsan Abu-Husain, “Al Qaeda Call for Islamic State in Southern Yemen,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 14,2009, (accessed Octo ber 29, 2009).

[44]“Civil War Fears as Yemen Celebrates Unity,” BBC, May 21, 2009.

[45]Youtube video clips on file with Human Rights Watch.

[46]Youtube video clips on file with Human Rights Watch.

[47]According to the governor of Abyan province, Ahmad al-Maysari, the fighting started when the protestors tried to storm the prison: “After they had finished [the speeches] they headed towards the central security camp and announced through their loudspeakers that they would attempt to release some of the prisoners by force.” Mohammad al-Kibsi and Abd al-Aziz Oudah, “Confrontations in Abyan Result in Tens of Deaths and Injuries,” Yemen Observer, July 25, 2009.

[48]Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Tariq al-Fadhli, Abyan, August 27, 2009.

[49]Mohammad al-Qadhi, “Killings Deepen Yemeni Rift,” The National (UAE), July 21, 2009.

[50]Zaid al-Alaya’a, “Police Arrested 2 Suspects of Murder of Three Shopkeepers in Lahj,” Yemen Observer, July 18, 2009.

[51]Mohammad al-Qadhi, “Killings Deepen Yemeni Rift,” The National (UAE), July 21, 2009.

[52]Arafat Madayash and Sawsan Abu-Hussain, “Al Qaeda Calls for Islamic State in Southern Yemen,” Ashrarq Alawsat.

[53]Abdul Hameed Bakier, “Al Qaeda in Yemen Supports Southern Secession,” Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor vol.7, no. 16, June 12, 2009.

[54]NEFA Foundation, “Transcript of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid’s Interview on Al-Jazeera,” June 22, 2009.

[55]Human Rights Watch interview with ambassador, name, place and date withheld on request. Abdul Hameed Bakier, an intelligence expert on counter-terrorism,writes, “Al-Wuhayshi’s audio, ostensibly in support of the South Yemen opposition movement, is actually an attempt to exploit the situation and control the southern region because al-Qaeda would never ally itself with those who do not adhere to Salafi-Jihadism, let alone infidel communists.” “Al Qaeda in Yemen Supports Southern Secession,” Jamestown Foundation, Terrorism Monitor vol.7, no. 16, June 12, 2009.