Welcome to the Afghanistan of Arabia.
Yemen, the likely source of the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing at Detroit, has just rudely intruded into the west's awareness. Sources there claim the attack by a young Nigerian was retaliation for extensive covert U.S. military operations in Yemen.
I first explored Yemen in the mid-1970s. This magical land of fierce tribesmen was just then creeping into the 11th century. At the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, mountainous, verdant Yemen was the Biblical land of the Queen of Sheba and originator of perfume.
Sana'a, the walled capitol, was straight out of Arabian Nights. At dusk, a ram's horn would sound and its gates would close for the night. Beyond lay warlike tribesmen who would slit your throat for a watch.
Almost every man wore a curved tribal dagger in his belt and went heavily armed.
There were no hotels, so I slept in the dining room of one of the palaces of the former ruler, Ahmed the Devil, who enjoyed nailing annoying people to his palace gate. Old Ahmed spent the rest of his time smoking hashish and cavorting with his well-stocked harem.
In 1990, the former British colony of Aden joined North Yemen. A military dictator, Ali Saleh, has held power since 1978. Saleh's U.S.-backed regime is accused of extensive human rights violations and deep corruption.
The 23 million people of the two Yemen's have feuded for decades. Yemen also battled with neighbour Oman, a virtual colony of MI6, British intelligence.
In a wonderful colonial punch-up, Britain's fabled SAS commandos in pink-painted jeeps (they blended perfectly with sand) battled Yemeni-backed nationalists known as the "Red Wolves of Radfan."
I naturally fell in love with Yemen, despite getting caught in tribal gunfights in the north, being nearly kidnapped and falling dreadfully ill.
At 4 p.m., every Yemeni would go off duty, sit in groups and chew the mild narcotic shrub qat for two hours while getting silly and swapping tall tales and jokes. Qat, Yemen's primary crop, curbs the appetite, so most lucky Yemenis are skinny.
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I saw tall, majestic Yemeni Jews proudly striding down the street dressed in flowing robes and turbans and sporting daggers, long beards and large silver stars of David around their necks -- a vision straight from the Old Testament.
Today, turbulent Yemen has become a haven for anti-American militants. Osama bin Laden's father came from Yemen. The destroyer USS Cole was bombed in Aden harbor in 2000.
The most prominent militant group is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a fusion of local Yemeni and Saudi jihadists dedicated to replacing the Saudi monarchy and Yemeni military regime with an Islamic government.
AQAP numbers around 100 men. It is not an organic part of Osama bin Laden's group but a like-minded local revolutionary group.
Dirt poor Yemen has three civil wars going on and bitter fighting between Sunni and various Shia sects. Yemen's warlike tribes hate any outside authority, starting with their own government.
Recently, the Saudis, backed by U.S. air power, CIA and special forces, intervened against Shia Houthi tribesmen along Yemen's undemarcated northern desert border.
Just before the Detroit air incident, U.S. warplanes killed 50-100 Yemeni tribesmen fighting the American-backed regime. U.S. special forces, warplanes and killer drones have been active since 2001, assassinating Yemeni militants and anti-government tribal leaders. It was only a matter of time before Yemeni jihadists struck back at the U.S.
Even Washington now admits that Yemen is the new hotbed of anti-western jihadist activity. Meanwhile, U.S. and NATO forces are supposedly in Afghanistan to fight al-Qaida -- which long ago decamped to Pakistan and Yemen.
The U.S. is being drawn into turbulent Yemen just as it is also expanding military operations across the Red Sea in Somalia and southern Kenya.
Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are also getting involved in Yemen.
Another hornet's nest kicked. Expect more nasty stings.