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Yemen's former President Saleh and the language of terror

One day you are America's closest ally on the war on terror, the next you find yourself on their hit list. And so the mad circus of this endless war gyrates on. This year it's the ex-President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite years as an ally of Washington, he has, since last week, found himself on the "terror" blacklist.

Saleh's turn of luck illustrates two enduring characteristics of the war on terror: firstly that America's choice of "enemies" is largely irrational; secondly that the word "terrorist" is now the most frequently abused term of the foreign policy lexicon.

For years, Saleh was Washington's man, a necessary ally because his country played host to Al-Qaeda's new and most threatening branch – Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). Since 2002, the CIA, alongside the Joint Operations Special Command (also known as JSOC), has been hunting AQAP as part of a covert programme which encompasses intelligence gathering on the ground and in the air, drone or missile strikes, special forces deployments, interrogations and collaboration with private security contractors – many of whom previously worked within the American military or intelligence communities.

All this went on during the watch of President Saleh, who even offered to take the blame for the controversial drone programme. According to a leaked diplomatic cable from January 2010, Saleh told General David Petraeus, commander of American forces in the Middle East : "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." Saleh duly lied to his own parliament about who was carrying out the strikes against AQAP – claiming the bombs were dropped by Yemenis with intelligence support from the Americans. In reality, the US owned the entire programme. Another cable from the month before, sent by US Ambassador Stephen Seche, had noted: "Yemen insisted it must 'maintain the status quo' regarding the official denial of US involvement. Saleh wanted operations to continue 'non-stop until we eradicate this disease'."

Saleh's own government troops were certainly engaged with AQAP. They were also engaged almost continuously with the Houthi rebellion in the north; Shia fighters who were also, between rounds with the government, fighting AQAP.

To this day, Houthis, AQAP and the central government continue to battle it out for Yemeni supremacy, but since his deposal in 2011, Saleh has newly sided with the Houthis. He has now found himself on the US terrorist list, despite fighting the very same enemy – AQAP – that the war on terror is meant to be targeting.

Saleh stands accused of trying to destabilise Yemen. The announcement of his "war on terror" re-assignment from "ally" to "target" has been welcomed poorly – with critics saying it will only make Saleh and his followers more popular, while pointing to the need for strong, inclusive governments rather than ostracism. Saleh's party quit the cabinet after the sanctions were imposed.

Confusion reigns in America's war on terror. The case of Saleh chimes with that of the new war in Syria and Iraq, which sees the Islamic State targeted even as the Free Syrian Army complain the campaign seriously degrades their chances of toppling President Bashar Al-Assad. Confusion reigned when Bush and Blair invaded Iraq in 2003, a special kind of barbaric idealism which the people of the Middle East are now paying dearly for. Saudi Arabia made for a confusing choice of ally when so many of the 9/11 hijackers came from that same country.

But Saleh's new rating isn't just an exemplar of confusion; it highlights how "terror" is a term splashed about with the broadest paint brush available. Saleh might be a corrupt and cruel man (rumours circulating in at least three Western embassies in Sanaa suggest he initially made his money from human trafficking), but is he a "terrorist"? The Houthis might be a rebel movement who represent a credible threat, in the short term, to Yemen's stability, but their popular movement is non-violent, while their military campaigns deploy conventional force. Are they really "terrorists"? They are broadly opposed to American involvement in their country (but who isn't?), and they are clearly aligned with Iran, but to place them on a par with an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber seems absurd. This especially when dozens of Houthis have been killed by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers in the past few months alone.

In proscribing Saleh, we see "terrorist" as a phrase to be deployed as a tool of foreign policy, a deliberate inaccuracy to add emotion into an already highly charged situation. The abandon with which America abuses the term in Saleh's case is mirrored elsewhere by her allies.

Israel was keen to re-pitch their battle against Hamas, over a land dispute that long pre-dated the 9/11 attacks, as part of this "war on terror". Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia pressured the United Kingdom to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood over "terrorism" links – in a bid to protect the legitimacy of their own autocratic monarchies.

Last week, the UAE abused the word "terrorist" by placing 83 organisations on their "terror" list – ranking Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State (ISIS) alongside peaceful Islamist groups (e.g. Al-Islah), or even British charities and think tanks widely respected within Westminster. President Al-Sisi's new military regime in Egypt has done similar, as has Saudi Arabia.

The language of "terror" has become as dangerous as the terror itself. It has led to invasions, torture and secret American death squads roaming across the Middle East – allowing extremist groups like ISIS to proliferate in the vacuum. "Terrorist" threats have been used to remove civil liberties on an unprecedented scale not only from Muslim communities in the West, but anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter, sends an email, or Skype calls their relatives abroad. Dictators abuse the term just to stay in power.

The way to stop terrorism is to stop the "war on terror". It has been a disaster that has seen the threat go from sporadic to endemic. There is a reason that no major news agency (BBC, Reuters et al.) uses the word "terrorist". It is an inherently inaccurate and biased term to use in reportage – and a dangerous and usually fatal term to use in foreign policy.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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