The Middle Eastern nation of Yemen is a country who recent history has been marked by mercenary activity within its borders.
Ahmad bin Yahya became ruler of what was known as North Yemen in 1948. Ahmad became known as “Ahmad the Devil” and his reign was marked by brutal repression, renewed friction with the United Kingdom over the British presence in the south (South Yemen), and growing pressures to support the Arab nationalist objectives of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
He died in September 1962. Shortly after assuming power in 1962, Ahmad's son, the Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr was deposed by revolutionary forces, which took control of Sana’a and created the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Egypt assisted the YAR with troops and supplies to combat forces loyal to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported Badr's royalist forces to oppose the newly formed republic starting the North Yemen Civil War.
As the republicans seized power, Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr managed to elude the Republican forces, and slipped away with his entourage into the safety of Saudi Arabia.
Styling itself as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), the coup was backed by the Soviet Union and by Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who immediately deployed Egyptian military forces to bolster the fledgling republican government.
Nasser had had a strained relationship with Badr and his paternal predecessor, and was undoubtedly trying to enhance his own prestige within the region. The chance to strike a blow against the interests of the colonial powers was undoubtedly also a contributing factor behind Egypt’s intervention.
Little did Nasser know that he was leading his country into a costly morass that is often referred to as “Egypt’s Vietnam”. During that time Egypt sent 70,000 troops to the Yemen and a total 26,000 were lost in battle.
The former colonial powers that Nasser despised so much, Britain and France, lent their support to the Royalist cause and immediately began a covert campaign to support Badr. Israel provided equipment and air-drops, while Saudi Arabia and Jordan gave financial support.
Thus began what would be known as the North Yemen Civil War.
SAS founder David Stirling organised the operation on behalf of the British through a multi-level organisational structure in Yemen. The British mercenary operations were directed from London by Stirling, allegedly assisted by British military and MI6 officers.
On the ground the mercenary organization was led by Colonel James Johnson, a former SAS commander. Interestingly, many of the British mercenaries were apparently still serving members of the British armed forces, including the SAS. One of these men was SAS officer Captain Peter de la Billiere. In his biography de la Billiere would state that he was involved in illegal activities, and that the British Government did not sanction them.
This is at odds with statements in books by Johnson, and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Cooper who was de la Billiere’s field commander in Yemen. In any case, the British government continues to deny any involvement in the affair.
Among the ranks of French mercenaries training and fighting alongside Royalist forces was infamous soldier-of-fortune Bob Denard. The Royalist forces also included Bruce Conde a former American citizen, noted stamp collector and royal pretender!
The mercenaries were largely kept busy training royalist guerrillas, and working as radio and demolition technicians.
The British operation in North Yemen closed in 1967. French mercenaries were apparently still in country the following year as an Associated Press story on January 16, 1968 reported that YAR forces had recovered the body of a French paratrooper after a battle outside Sana’a. A certificate issued to a Jacques Benoit from a parachute training school in France, as well as other documents and personal photos were proclaimed as irrefutable proof that foreign mercenaries were assisting Badr.
By 1970 Saudi Arabia had recognised the new government, and the civil war was over. Many of the mercenaries involved would move on to other conflicts, mostly in Africa. The biggest loser would be Nasser.
In neighbouring South Yemen allegations were made that American mercenaries were fomenting unrest and training rebels in the early 70s. South Yemen and North Yemen would unite as a unified Yemen in 1990.
The North Yemen Civil War was a forerunner to present-day civil wars, as far as the high costs faced by third parties getting involved (Egypt) and the emergence of mercenary or private military organizations.
Yemen is not free of mercenaries today though. Interestingly, a new breed of foreign fighter is again spilling blood on Yemeni soil. Sana'a provides a cell of foreign Al Qaeda militants with arms, money and other military requirements to assist the Yemeni army against the Houthi opposition movement in the north of the country.
Yemen today is also a staging point for local and foreign mercenaries, being sent to support Islamic causes in various countries including Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The land that the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy once named “Happy Arabia” is today currently the poorest country in the Middle East with high unemployment, and endemic government corruption.
Unlike its near neighbours, Yemen is cruelly lacking in substantial oil reserves. These factors, and the fact it’s regarded as a haven for Islamic terrorists, mean that foreign investment is negligible and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
© Copyright John O’Brien 2010
van Niekerk, Phillip. Making a Killing: The Business of War. http://www.publicintegrity.org/
Wilkinson, Raymond. Claims US Advisers Directing Mercenaries. The Bryan Times. 28 Feb 1972.
Bob Denard - French mercenary whose exploits became the stuff of novel and film. Times Online. 16 Oct 2007.
Mercenaries for Chechnya being trained in Yemen - Russian agency. RIA news agency, Moscow. 25 May 2000
Mercenaries in Yemen War. Gettysburg Times. 16 Jan 1968.
Yemen employs al-Qaeda mercenaries: Houthis. www.presstv.ir .28 Oct 2009
Yemen: After Ahmad the Devil. Time. 5 Oct 1962
Yemen Cites Mercenary Evidence. The Miami News. 15 Jan 1968.
Uncredited reference. Time. 11 Aug 1967