It is argued in the 2011 World Development Report that the ‘global system’ of international aid is centred on a ‘paradigm of conflict’, whereby both national and international actors – in development, diplomacy and humanitarianism – have become chiefly concerned with providing states with the means and capabilities to overcome civil war through increased prosperity and dispute resolution (World Bank 2011: 2). This view, writes the World Bank, prioritises violence and conflict as an inherent cause of underdevelopment, but does not take into account the reality that such an approach is no longer suited to ‘21st century violence’. Due to ‘successes in reducing interstate war, the remaining forms of conflict and violence do not fit neatly either into “war” or “peace,” or into “criminal violence” or “political violence”‘ (World Bank 2011: 2). In particular, a prioritisation of political violence, insurgency and terrorism in international development and stabilisation strategies has meant that more common forms of criminal violence have been overlooked in a number of fragile contexts, as they have been in Yemen.

In light of Yemen’s on-going political crises, the prioritisation of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency programming is not surprising. Yemen is a fragile state, in accordance with Graziella Bertocchi and Andrea Guerzoni’s definition of the term (2011: 2), where fragile states are categorised by an ‘inability to provide basic services and meet vital needs, unstable and weak governance, persistent and extreme poverty, lack of territorial control, and high propensity to conflict and civil war’. Without effective peace-building policies and an effective peace-keeping system, Yemen, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, will be at heightened risk of state failure. This could have potentially drastic repercussions for the region, keeping in mind that the country is now home to a resurgent Al Qaeda in the Arab Penninsula (AQAP) movement.

The 2011 Arab Spring and the 2012 Revolution of Institutions have pushed the Yemeni Government and the international community to begin planning for a severe restructuring of military, police and judicial services in the country. However, there is a danger that a lack of understanding of – and information about – more mainstream criminal violence in Yemen could lead to the side-lining of spending on conventional law enforcement needs. The British Government – which is taking the lead in police training in Yemen as part of a broader European Union commitment to post-2013 security sector reform – asserts that restructured police services in the country will likely take on a ‘paramilitary’ identity and that Yemeni police will be tasked with reinstating territorial control of their state.1 They will likely remain a highly politicised institution, operating according to a ‘statist’ or ‘state-centric’, rather than a ‘protectionist’ or ‘rights-based’, narrative of security, in which criminality is secondary to other strategic concerns. It is unclear what the implications of this are for the potential escalation of criminal violence, or how resulting criminality might feed back into political insecurity.

In light of Yemen’s current transition process and upcoming national dialogue, this paper’s primary purpose is to highlight the importance of crime in security by analysing the relationship between criminal violence and political violence. The article’s main function is to point readers towards forms of violence that are commonly overlooked and to trace their connections to conflict and insecurity. The article also aims to improve the public availability of information on crime patterns in Yemen in order to encourage a debate on international engagement in fragile states that looks beyond the confines of conflict and terrorism.

Due to the pervasive nature of violence in fragile states2 (which are often war-affected), there is a tendency amongst analysts not to delve too deeply into criminological analyses in contexts where crime is viewed as a ‘natural’ side-effect of underdevelopment. The relationship between crime and conflict appears, superficially, to be straightforward, with crime emerging as a bi-product of the social chaos generated by political instability. However, the logical extension of this argument – that the international community needs therefore to intervene to restore political stability in order to solve the problem of crime – is fundamentally flawed. One has only to look at cases like Iraq, El Salvador, Tajikistan and Nicaragua to see that serious offending patterns not dealt with at peak points of conflict will continue to have a costly impact upon public safety long after peace-building strategies have been initiated, with crime (especially organised crime) often overtaking conflict as a leading cause of insecurity. A lack of comparative and case-by-case investigations means that the challenge of violent crime in fragile states remains poorly understood, leading to increased difficulties for policy-makers working in security sector reform: law enforcement is side-lined by militarised policing strategies, and the impact of crime on security is overlooked.

Meanwhile, low rates of crime detection in fragile states indicate that the inflated percentages of violent offending made visible by official records3 are likely to be masking an even greater volume of undetected violent offences. While this is often also true of stable countries, low rates of birth registration, lack of access to basic services, low school attendance, high unemployment and mass displacement further impact the ability of fragile states to monitor their citizens. This leads to a lack of detection of murders and disappearances, not to mention other crimes. Thus, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) notes that ‘homicidal violence and violent crime’ as well as ‘armed violence disproportionately [affect] low … income countries’ (2009: 28–9). This is a reality that needs to be seen to be addressed, if fragile states are to be perceived by constituents as demonstrating concern for the safety and welfare of their citizens: but a tendency by fragile states and donors to neglect criminality in favour of stabilisation has failed to lead to increased legitimacy in many contexts, particularly in Yemen where the state’s security priorities are not seen as relevant to the needs of communities4.

The biggest challenge in studying these issues is definitional: it is extremely difficult, even in countries that are not affected by significant obstacles preventing effective data collection, to separate out incidents of criminality from incidents of conflict-related violence.

The definitional issue is addressed here in part through the selection of a fragile state case study in which administrative processes are already in place within the existing judicial system to sort violent actors according to criminal or politically motivated offences. Yemeni courts disaggregate criminal, political and morality offences in statistical data5. This renders statistical analyses of Yemeni crime rates easier by listing casualties of war or terrorism as victims of political violence. As evidenced in the next section, it has long been to the benefit of the Yemeni Government to link as many deaths as possible to political actions in order to justify its internal military policies and bids for foreign military aid (especially from Western powers and Saudi Arabia). Analysts are therefore left with the reasonable assumption that remaining records of violent crime offer an accurate portrayal of offending behaviour, even if that portrayal may be severely limited by a lack of crime detection capacity.

Conflict and Security in Yemen

Yemen is currently experiencing no less than four distinct security crises, meaning that the Yemeni Government has little effective control over the vast majority of its territory. The main political challenges that the state faces today are: an on-going conflict against localised combatant groups in the far North; rising separatist sentiment in the South; a growing terrorist insurgency from within Yemen’s borders; and threats to the state’s very survival in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring. War and conflict are products and causes of continuing fragility. They contribute to Yemen’s patterns of criminality by: disrupting the rule of law; increasing social chaos; and, diverting security services into counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategies. Due to the reciprocal relationship between crime and conflict, it is likely that this side-lining of law enforcement in Yemen is unhelpful to restoring security and stability in the country.

Hostilities in the far north of Yemen can be traced to economic competition between North and South Yemen before and after the formal unification of the country in 1990 (which culminated in the 1994 Civil War and was followed immediately by a need to consolidate a new government leadership). For a prolonged space in Yemen’s history, peripheral governorates were marginalised by state development programmes in favour of building a strong capital city with a solid administrative base in Sana’a (Boucek 2010). The resulting situation of chronic underdevelopment that emerged in the far North, particularly in the areas that border the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, contributed to overall increases in levels of hostility by local communities towards President Saleh’s Government (disbanded in 2011). When combined with historic grievances, the formation of new identities and increased population movement, all of which came to the fore in the late 1990s, hostilities sparked mass protests, arbitrary arrests in 2004, and a wave of military clashes resulting from a refusal by protest leaders to accompany state escorts to prison (International Crisis Group 2009). In 2004, emerging groups of non-state combatants included the Houthis and the Believing Youth. Since then, six consecutive wars have enveloped Sa’ada and its surrounding governorates – Hajja, Amran and Al Jawf. According to Christopher Boucek, over 250,000 people have been displaced by the Sa’ada wars and, while ‘[t]here is no good data on casualties, … estimates of the number killed range from several hundred to several thousand’ (2010: 1).

In 2013, the main implication of the Sa’ada wars for security is that they are as yet unresolved and risk being reignited. Resistance to arrest and outside intervention, which sparked hostilities in 2004, has far-reaching implications for policing, which has traditionally been unwelcome in Yemen’s largely inaccessible peripheries. Conceptions of crime and justice also differ between the centre and the peripheries, so that official attempts at justice administration are prone to igniting violence between tribes and police services6. Meanwhile, cases in which citizens legitimately need state protection from abusive local tribal leaders are easily overlooked7.

The 2011 Arab Spring allowed the Northern peripheries to establish an almost federal self-governance system. Concerns for the future of the region emerge from the as yet undetermined position of President Saleh’s successor, President Hadi, towards the Northern governorates and from doubts as to whether or not future governments will allow the region to maintain its new sense of autonomy. Other dangers stem from the reality that the severe underdevelopment of the far North has yet to be reversed.

The 1990 unification did not bring much material benefit to former South Yemeni territories either. In the aftermath of their democratisation, Southern Socialist-Marxist government structures were slowly dismantled, services were privatised and subsidised healthcare and education were brought to an end. These cuts reinforced rumours spreading among the local population that Southern resources – especially oil and gas – were being siphoned by Sana’a to promote Northern interests. The gradual reduction of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party’s authority and influence across the country (which favoured the South) and growing dissatisfaction with the new status quo, eventually led to the 1994 Civil War for separatism. Southern forces were quickly overwhelmed by the North in a brutal campaign that devastated their infrastructure (Johnsen 2013: 45).

The aftermath of that war has not yet been fully analysed. Following the unquestionable victory of the North of Yemen over the South, President Saleh’s regime set about a process of purging Southern leaders from key positions in the South and replacing them with Northern officials (Johnsen 2013: 43). While President Saleh succeeded – by integrating the Southern and Northern armies - in crushing the ability of the former Southern leadership to mobilise any significant forces against the Sana’a Government, he failed to effectively address Southern grievances (Human Rights Watch 2009). This led to prolonged and continuing hostility towards his regime after 1994. Southern Yemenis have found few outlets in mainstream politics for voicing their discontent, pushing them to protest frequently against the Yemeni state. Ever fearful of budding revolutions, the Government of Yemen has responded to these protests with brutal reprisals, inadvertently sowing the seeds of what has become a flourishing secessionist movement (Human Rights Watch 2009). Struggles between the two continue to this day.

In 2011, the Southern Mobility Movement, also known as al-Hirak al-Janubi, put aside their secessionist narrative in order to unite with other Arab Spring protesters in favour of removing President Saleh from power. Though peaceful overall, al-Hirak al-Janubi is now increasingly – and perhaps unfairly – linked to a growing trend towards radicalisation (Phillips 2010). This trend is associated with focused counter-terrorism strategies in the South, which have angered the local population, putting peaceful communities in harm’s way through shelling and other military campaigns. Crucially, there is now the potential for Southern communities to turn violent if the post-Saleh transition process fails to grant the South increased political representation in the long term. Rising insecurity and unrest in the South in 2013 are commonly linked to a lack of resolution of ‘the Southern issue’.8

From a law enforcement perspective, there is a need to tread carefully in the South with regards to police reformation and security sector reform. The precarious position of policing services in Yemeni society is influenced by its relatively brief history, whereby protracted colonization meant that North and South Yemen established their own security systems after the independence of both countries in the 1960s. These police systems differed remarkably between the two countries: ‘The Aden Police’ maintained a clear division between the three services of Armed, Riot and Security Police in the South; and the Northern police, according to Nathan Brown et al, emerged as a much more passive, ‘less centralized’ and ‘less pervasive’ institution that aimed to strike a balance between state and tribal authority (2010: 6). Thus, a far stronger tradition of tribal autonomy and self-administration evolved in the North than in the South of the country, where a prioritization of tribal affiliations was categorized by the state as backwards. However, a long tradition of police brutality has meant that Southern communities are quick to voice suspicions of police involvement in their affairs. Brown et al note that, when competing policing institutions and values were merged under the management of the Ministry of Interior upon Yemen’s unification in 1990, ‘Southerners … complained about this new force, as well as the army, which they held directly responsible for increased banditry’ (2010: 6). Varying perceptions of the legitimacy of law enforcement services in different governorates have fed directly into both the way in which conflicts have evolved over time in Yemen and into patterns of criminality. The latter are characterised by a prevalence of under-reporting and retributive violence – phenomena that can be associated with law enforcement and justice deficits that are a direct result of the institutional marginalisation of the issue of crime.

Due to its pre-existing conflicts, Yemen has been significantly affected by the Arab Spring. Protests began in Yemen between January and February 2011, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, demanding a change of leadership; the removal of President Saleh as the head of the Yemeni Government was a central and non-negotiable demand for most participants (Lewis 2012). This goal was achieved only in 2012, but not without first fracturing Yemen’s army and leaving the new Government in a state of crisis.

The protests, which pitted citizens against law enforcement personnel, have had a negative impact on perceptions of police legitimacy. Many police and military personnel and their families were under threat of random attacks and street violence in 2012, particularly by young people and emerging gang structures.9 Independent surveys conducted by the author in 2011 and 2012 further revealed that citizens in Sana’a and elsewhere witnessed a rise in property damage (particularly against public buildings), hooliganism and clashes between law enforcement services and communities throughout this period. A recent survey by the Yemen Polling Centre (2013) indicates that the situation seems to be improving in 2013 and that Yemenis are now open to the idea of increased policing at a national level. However, much work remains to be done if Yemeni communities are to come to trust and rely upon their police and security services in future.

Finally, as a buffer between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, Yemen is affected by a number of strategic issues, including an on-going regional struggle between Shia and Sunni domination (which can be considered more of a politically-motivated struggle than a religious one) (ICG 2010), increased Islamic radicalisation and terrorism, and rising levels of organised crime and piracy. Most famously, Yemen is the home of the late Osama bin Laden, founder of the Al Qaeda terrorist movement, and the new operational centre of the Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) movement – a core component of the overall organisation (Johnsen 2013: xiv-xv).

In practice, the threat of AQAP and its affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia, has acted as one of the main determining factors for continued American and Saudi Arabian support for the Yemeni government. This support proved crucial for former President Saleh’s regime in determining domestic military policy, particularly in relation to the war against the Houthis, and is currently proving equally important for President Hadi.

America has now been intervening in Yemen for over a decade. In November 2002, an American missile strike that resulted in the death of Abu Ali al Harithi, then-leader of Al Qaeda’s Yemen offshoot, effectively crippled the movement. However, after a prison break in February of 2006 allowed Nasser al Wahayshi and Qasim al Raymi to reform the organisation, AQAP once again grew to constitute a significant threat in Yemen (Phillips 2010). These on-going security challenges have led to the continuous diversion of Government funding to military needs, and the substitution of traditional community policing roles with new counter-insurgency ones. These strategies are likely to continue to dominate security sector reform packages in 2014 and beyond, leading to the side-lining of conventional law enforcement programmes, which, as it will be argued, stems from a lack of appreciation for the simultaneous security threat that crime poses in the country. The international community is not currently interested in funding the development of law enforcement in Yemen that is geared specially towards the control of apolitical violence and crime.

The either/or attitude to addressing conflict and crime that results implicitly from policy interventions in Yemen emerges from the country’s severe lack of capacity and identity as a fragile state. Mark Shaw notes that sovereign states have historically been defined as enclosed or ‘bordered’ political organisations with exclusive ownership over legitimate (or simply internally legalised) violence within their territories (1997: 500). However, as Graham Brown and Frances Stewart note, fragile states are defined, conversely, as suffering at once from failures in authority, services and legitimacy10 (2010: 10). As a fragile state, Yemen falls short of Shaw’s governance criteria, whereby authority and legitimacy failures inhibit its Government from fully and effectively maintaining its territory in accordance with a bordered conception of statehood. The legitimacy and legality of violence committed by the Yemeni Government within its territory is questioned by its citizens and the international community (Human Rights Watch 2010). Insurgents and foreign powers continue to use violence to bid for control of governorates, with and without the Government’s approval (Johnsen 2013: 49). Ultimately, Yemen’s main security challenges are not enclosed within its territory; piracy, terrorism and organised crime are cross-border phenomena and tribal divisions also fail to recognise official state or governorate lines (Dresch 1993).

Yemen’s unique socio-political reality reflects its unusual evolution. The United Nations Development Project (2010b: 11) writes that:

Overlaying a modern state upon Yemen’s traditional governance system has proved difficult, and both state formation and nation building remain works-in-progress. Meanwhile, to ensure its survival, the government has created informal political alliances with traditional shaiks, religious leaders, and powerful interest groups through intensive patronage networks outside the formal state structures – which has given rise to the so-called ‘parallel state’.

Figure 1 

Map of Total Reported Offences in 2009, Extrapolated from Yemen’s Security and Justice Statistics

The existence of the Yemeni parallel state has worked at once to secure the Government’s position of authority prior to 2011 and to severely limit the extent of its power. While the parallel state multiplies the number of informal institutions that might be called upon to enhance the Government’s decision-implementing capacity, it actually serves to undermine official structures. Many manifestations of Yemen’s fragility are thus intrinsically connected to weak governance, whereby the state remains incapable of monopolising control over legitimate violence and lacks the institutional capacity to exercise significant positive change in the lives of its citizens. These contribute directly to both crime and conflict, but only conflict has been analysed thoroughly be policy makers and researchers investigating insecurity in the country.

Crime in Yemen

Statistical records in Yemen are unreliable, with large areas of the country isolated from the state by conflict or natural disaster, and other rural settings lacking the infrastructure necessary to detect and process offences through official channels. Associated discrepancies in data trends are evident from the fact that certain peripheral governorates in Yemen, such as Al Jawf, have consistently shown a significantly lower rate of reporting than their neighbours. However, while parts of Yemen (particularly in the capital, where reporting is substantially higher than elsewhere) may be said to provide a more detailed survey area than Al Jawf, data availability in Yemen is relatively high considering its severe fragility.

Government statistics may provide uneven coverage of crime rates across governorates, but they nonetheless provide a continuous and consistent portrait of each governorate over time, allowing for the extrapolation of country-wide and area-specific trends. These and other statistics11 have been used in this analysis.

Criminal Violence

Yemen offers a fairly typical example of crime and violent offending within a fragile state context. Its statistically recorded rate of total crime is very low, but its homicide rate is high, as is its rate of violent offending. Yemen registered a rate of 0.0336276 homicides per 1,000 people in 2004, placing it at the 27th position out of 62 countries with available data (UNODC 2005). In 2008, this number increased to approximately 0.04, according to the Human Development Index, indicating a steady and consistent increase (UNDP 2010a).

Yemen now exhibits a high rate of criminal violence, particularly against women and children. Uprooted communities seem to be especially vulnerable; 67.5% of displaced people under the age of 18 show evidence of being subjected to domestic violence (UNCT 2010: 5). These rates of abuse are likely consistent with elevated levels of family stress caused by displacement, uncertainty about the future, lack of physical stability and increased vulnerability due to loss of employment and the break-up of pre-existing community structures.12

Violence against children in schools and on the streets in Yemen has additionally been proven to be common, where aggravating factors have included: a lack of safe spaces for young people (EDC 2008); poor community capacities for the monitoring of children; and, poverty.

Adult men are found to be at risk of grievous bodily harm and fatality, often as a result of revenge killings or violent disagreements over natural resources. The Small Arms Survey (2010) estimates that arguments relating specifically to water and land currently account for approximately 4,000 deaths per year in rural Yemen alone. Poor reliance on official state justice mechanisms, particularly in the peripheries, means that people tend to take justice into their own hands, turning personal confrontations into family, tribal or religious ones that affect a much larger populous. These confrontations carry clear implications for continuing conflicts, as well as for escalating criminal violence, but are neglected by statist conceptions of security.

Women in Yemen are equally, if not additionally, vulnerable. Governmental crime statistics made available by the Central Statistical Organisation and the Ministry of Justice do not provide a breakdown of victim demographics and are not very helpful in determining the extent of gender-based violence in the country. The extremely low rate of social mobility among women and girls in Yemen means that those who are exposed to violence or abuse generally do not seek assistance from the Government or its law enforcement services. Official rape statistics therefore show sexual offences to be virtually non-existent in the country, with only 0.004 offences committed per 1000 people (UNODC 2005).

Actual numbers are likely to be much higher. Violence against female minors is also reported to be on the increase. 1256 girls under the age of 18 had been recorded as falling victim to gender-based violence in 2008, as compared to only 167 girls in 2007 (Women’s National Committee 2008: 60). Of the violent crimes committed against young girls, battery, murder and attempted rape were listed as the most prominent.

Weapons Proliferation

Yemen is considered one of the most heavily armed countries in the world, both a result of the important cultural symbolism of weapons within Yemeni society and of the country’s very low border control capacity, which allows for the relatively easy trafficking of small arms into and out of its borders. Curved blades called janbiya that are worn on the belt have traditionally symbolised male honour and tribal affiliation, especially in the North. However, these are increasingly being accompanied by illegal firearms.

In 2003, Derek B. Miller wrote that there were approximately 6–9 million small arms in the country – contrary to common estimates, which stated that the number was 50 million (10). Even if Miller’s lower estimate is to be adopted, dangers to the civilian population stem from the reality that many of these weapons have yet to be accounted for by the Government. Due to the importance of weapons in Yemeni customs and cultural practices, any official efforts to enforce control over weapons distribution and possession have in the past been met with great hostility in certain governorates; those policies that are passed successfully are made redundant by a lack of implementation capacity. These trends are aggravated by on-going conflicts and political crises, which ensure the continued demand for weapons and ammunitions trafficking.

Offender Demographics

Within this context of widespread criminal violence and the escalation of violence through the availability of weapons, there has emerged a growing trend towards violent behaviour among children and young people under the age of eighteen, attributed to the socialisation of children to violence. The United Nations Country Team argues that the use of child combatants in the Northern conflicts of Yemen is creating a generation of young people ‘who perceive violent opportunism to be a normal aspect of life’ (2010: 25). The same link can be made for those children who are now growing up in areas of high criminal violence and who have not been exposed to war. The visible effect of this growing culture of violence are an increased occurrence of young offending and a growing rate of violent offending among young people.

Most offenders in Yemen are identified and processed as male adults, above the age of 18. Yet, many of these offenders include young males who are misclassified due to a lack of appropriate documentation to prove their entitlement to processing under specialised youth justice systems. Overall, the demographic composition of offenders is extremely gender weighted: Yemeni men represent 93.64% of all offenders (Walmsey 2007).

Women, who are hugely under-represented in crime statistics, are most commonly arrested for adultery-related offences and public indecency. Statistics may be skewed, however, by a reported tendency for men and young boys to go to prison in place of their female relatives. Amnesty International writes that: ‘Generally, arrest and detention of women is frowned upon in Yemeni society, making it more difficult for the authorities to arrest women, particularly in relation to political or other kinds of activism’ (2012: 17).

There is also a higher general tendency towards female offending among young offenders in Yemen than among the general population13. This trend could be associated with improved social mobility among younger generations of women in Yemen. Young offending among women is predominantly linked to adultery-related offences, violations of immigration laws and cases of light assault. This leaves boys and young men as the main body of violent offenders in the under 18 population.

Young Offending

Young offenders comprise a very small percentage of statistically recorded crime rates in Yemen. However, the number of documented offences committed by young people under the age of 18 has steadily increased since 2003, both in quantity and as a percentage of total offences (CSO 2004 - 2010). Although it is not possible to fully document the extent of the young offending problem in Yemen, it is possible to extrapolate a picture of offending patterns among children and young people. Detected and recognised young offenders can be taken as a representative sample group of the greater undetected or misclassified whole.

There is a strong tendency among young offenders towards violent crime (such as physical offences against the person), which represented 53.81% of offences committed by young people in 2009. Violent crime accounted for 48.40% of all offences committed in 2009, indicating a disproportional trend towards violent behaviour among those under the age of 18 (CSO 2009). Figures relating to murder, attempted murder and manslaughter, which accounted for 10.08% of offences committed by young offenders (CSO 2009), are staggering, particularly in light of the Yemeni Government’s separation of criminal and so-termed ‘political’ violence in official data. A significant portion of the 363 murder, attempted murder and manslaughter cases detected in 2009 are not considered to be related to on-going conflicts in the country (CSO 2009). With much violent crime being situated around conflict-affected governorates, and especially around the Northern peripheries, violent young offending might be read as a legacy of prolonged periods of warfare in Yemen. It feeds continuously into political violence, with severe implications for security.

Figure 2 

Graph of Recorded Juvenile Offending Cases, Extrapolated from Yemen’s Security and Justice statistics for 2009 (CSO 2010)

Organised Crime and Corruption

Yemen also suffers from organised crime, a bi-product of nation-wide underdevelopment and emerging networks of patronage. The UNODC (2010) identifies ‘the two predominant threats to Yemen’s security, stability and development’ as ‘illicit trafficking (particularly of drugs)’ and ‘criminal networks (including terrorism and its financing)’. However, many of Yemen’s weapons are left-overs of previous conflicts. Its primary source of narcotics consumption – qat – is also legal. Therefore, much of the evidence linking organised crime to mainstream criminogenic commodities in Yemen is circumstantial. Organised crime might be linked to the trafficking of specialised weaponry (such as valuable antique guns) and alcohol. While some alcohol, including Baladi (a vodka-like liqueur), is brewed in Yemen, most is smuggled into the country from Ethiopia and Djibouti (Murphy, 2010).

Other forms of organised crime include banditry and kidnapping (CSO 2009), whereby a relatively small group of people, or even an entire community, is able to win quick financial profits by harassing and intimidating other communities and individuals. With long roads, large desert and mountain terrains, and low levels of police and law enforcement outside the major cities, Yemen lends itself well to such criminal opportunism. Organised crime in Yemen is mainly linked to human smuggling and trafficking14 and to the smuggling of agricultural and fishing produce15 – including qat. Difficult mountainous terrain in the north is an obstacle to Government intervention and has encouraged local combatants and insurgents familiar with the landscape to adopt guerrilla tactics, so that conflict and banditry overlap in difficult-to-traverse areas.

The challenges of organised crime and conflict in Yemen are connected to the predominance of corruption16. For many Yemeni citizens, corruption is a daily reality (TI 2010) that has resulted in the emergence of a highly contested parallel state, based on tribal affiliations and the entrenchment of patronage networks. This has acted as an important impediment for reform and is a leading cause of bureaucratic stalling in the dispersal of bilateral aid and the delivery of development projects. One explanation for the parallel state is that the Government’s limited ability to exercise its authority has traditionally fostered reliance upon patronage systems and tribal allegiances (Economist Intelligence Unit 2010). Another reason is that Yemen’s very poor law enforcement system allows for criminal opportunism, while the poor salaries of low-level public officials encourage bribery. Those communities unable to access benefits awarded through Government patronage are particularly likely to reject state authority, either falling into mainstream patterns of offending or contributing to on-going conflicts. Corruption facilitates the formation of the give-and-take relationships that are necessary for organised crime to flourish (Martínez 2007).

The Relationship Between Yemeni Crime Statistics, Underdevelopment and Conflict

Statistics made available by the CSO cover the period of 2003 to 2010. In this same period, the Government of Yemen has made significant efforts to increase its own operational capacity (MOPIC 2010). However, following the initiation of hostilities in the north of Yemen in 2004, and the breakdown of the security situation across the country, the Government’s capacity for law enforcement has diminished in many governorates and much of its operational budget has been siphoned towards military priorities.

Despite a decline in crime detection capacities, Yemeni statistics have shown a consistent increase in rates of offending, which rose from 24,406 offences in 2003 to 40,090 in 2010 (CSO 2004, 2010). Violent non-political offences comprised 42.08% of all crime in 2003, and 48.40% in 2010, showing a parallel increase in severity of registered offences. Overall decreases in budgeting capacity and security indicate that this rising crime rate is connected to broader social conditions, rather than to increased reporting, of which there has been no evidence17. Dennis Jay Kenney summarises that ‘Yemenis are at somewhat greater risk of most crimes – especially crimes of violence – than are citizens of many other countries throughout the world’ (2008: 10). From 2011 to 2012, widespread protests further destabilised security and, in 2013, deteriorating levels of public safety have been linked to uncertainties about the future, in light of Yemen’s political transition18. Violent crime against foreigners is also on the increase, with Westerners particularly at risk of targeted violence19.

Crime is distributed across the country in urban, rather than rural, areas20 – as is to be reasonably expected given population density and police capacities in different regions. Yemen’s largest cities – Sana’a, Aden, Taizz, Hudaydah, Mukalla, Ibb and Dhamar – are located in Sana’a, Aden, Al Hudaydah, Hadramaut, Ibb and Dhamar governorates, respectively; these governorates in turn demonstrate the highest annual rates of recorded crime.

Figure 3 

Violent Crime Per Governorate in 2009 as a Percentage of Total Recorded Offences in Yemen’s Security and Justice statistics (CSO 2010)

Violent crime is particularly concentrated in those governorates that have been most strongly affected by conflict, including Sa’ada, Al Jawf, Amran and Hajjah. The greatest discrepancy in these findings is that Hadramaut’s recorded rate of violent crime remains considerably lower than those of more central administrative areas, despite containing a large city. This could be explained by diminished law enforcement capacities and poorer data coverage. Hadramaut remains one of the poorest governorates in the country (CSO 2010), with very low levels of policing.

Other factors should likewise be taken into account: crime and conflict are higher in certain areas of the country due to persistent disputes over arable land. The perforation of tribal structures and levels of local education or social organisation might also be relevant, with some tribes adopting more violent strategies for negotiating their surroundings than others, and some education and local structures adopting strong counter-violence programming.

Despite discrepancies, violent crime across the country can be further correlated with the aggregate percentage of urban and rural poverty of each governorate, as the demonstrated in the table below, extrapolated from Yemen’s CSO (2010) Statistical Yearbook for 2009.

Heightened levels of violence in poorer governorates indicate that both crime and conflict continue to be connected to broader themes of underdevelopment and local dissatisfaction with Government development priorities: this has proved particularly problematic in the Sa’ada-Hajja-Amran-Al Jawf area, where a rejection of state legitimacy has also led to protracted conflict.

The Interactions Between Crime, Conflict and Security in Yemen

Yemen is affected by a wide range of criminal activity, much of which is extremely violent. Yet patterns of crime tend to be overlooked and under-researched by national, regional and international powers who prioritise stabilisation, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism interventions. This attitude is unhelpful, undermining the protection of Yemeni civilians, allowing crime to spiral out of control, and paradoxically contributing to the regeneration of the very political violence patterns that militarised security strategies strive to address in the country. While crime and conflict are separate issues and stem from a variety of causes, they are aggravated by similar risk factors and feed into one another: for example, they can both be affected by a lack of community cohesion, by a lack of livelihoods and education opportunities, by low policing/security capacities, or by a prevalence of retributive violence21. Furthermore, criminal violence is easily misinterpreted as political violence and can illicit political responses, leading to continuous exchanges of violence between tribes or communities, or sparking low-level recurring violence that triggers new rounds of conflict between people and the state. These observations lead to questions as to how violence and insecurity in fragile states should be addressed, implying that only a holistic strategy that is aware of both areas might succeed in addressing either one.

Table 1

The Distribution by Governorate of Aggregate Urban and Rural Poverty Rates and Offences Against the Person as a Percentage of Total Recorded Crime in 2009

District Offences Against the Person as a Percentage (%) of Total Registered Crime Aggregate Percentage (%) of Urban and Rural Poor

Ibb 50.78 23.086 – 34.691

Abyan 48.91 37.136 – 48.378

Sana’a City 45.07 7.976 – 17.504

Al Baida 80.87 51.431 – 70.395

Taiz 48.86 37.136 – 48.378

Al Jawf 78.23 37.136 – 48.378

Hajjah 61.6 51.431 – 70.395

Al Hudaydah 38.81 37.136 – 48.378

Hadramout 24.64 37.136 – 48.378

Dhamar 55.74 23.086 – 34.691

Shabwah 35.58 51.431 – 70.395

Sa’ada 72.35

Sana’a 56.2 23.086 – 34.691

Aden 31.48 23.086 – 34.691

Lahij 39.86 37.136 – 48.378

Mareb 53.16 37.136 – 48.378

Al Mahweet 64.71 23.086 – 34.691

Al Maharah 32 7.976 – 17.504

Amran 85.79 51.431 – 70.395

Al Daleh 56.62 23.086 – 34.691

Reymah 65.12 23.086 – 34.691

Criminality and conflict can be relatively easily correlated with one another through root causes, and both are affected by limitations in the state’s capacity and by specificities of the development context. Both are also influenced by the prevalence of weapons, where “weapon characteristics” are “relevant to the degree of harm inflicted” by crime and conflict (Roach and Pease 2011). Crime and conflict are furthermore incredibly difficult to investigate individually, because they overlap and aggravate each other. When they are analysed in tandem in Yemen, they are found to intersect at various different points, at which the independence of crime and conflict as individual phenomena is heavily obscured.

There are six key points at which the union of crime and violence is particularly strong. These points include: (1) tribal violence (that is, violence committed to achieve a physical benefit for a tribe); (2) equalising violence (including crimes of revenge or street justice, where violence is used to right a perceived social wrong); (3) economically motivated violence (where violence is committed in the criminal pursuit of an economic objective, such as holding somebody to ransom); (4) banditry and organised criminal violence (which includes violence committed to cover up corruption); (5) violence against state officials that is not committed in pursuit of a political objective or as part of a conflict; and (6) uncategorised violence.

These six unions highlight the interdependence of crime and conflict, and they help to illustrate the argument made in this paper that, while the study of crime in fragile states has been largely under-researched in favour of investigating the restoration of other types of “political” security, neither can be overcome without a holistic approach that takes both into consideration when planning stabilising interventions. A failure to treat crime as a serious problem in conflict-affected countries where counter-insurgency is prioritised can allow apolitical violence to dominate, causing insecurity for decades to come.

As a direct point of interaction between crime and conflict, tribal violence in Yemen is a reflection of: the Government’s over-reliance upon tribal structures22 and patronage networks; the emergence of a virtually untouchable parallel state that favours powerful tribal federations (such as the Al Ahmar family-run Hashid Federation); the limited reach of law enforcement in hard-to-access geographic areas; and, a lack of basic services that has pushed Yemeni communities, in the North especially, to look to tribal structures as a tool for self-administration. Tribal violence in Yemen tends to involve violence between tribes or between tribes and the state, though it also incorporates economically motivated violence aimed at achieving a tribal objective. This can take the form of banditry, kidnapping, racketeering, robbery or burglary, as long as the economic outputs of these crimes are intended to benefit a tribal unit or sub-unit23. Such actions may not be perceived as criminal by Yemeni tribesmen, so long as they are carried out with a political purpose24: they may also not be considered as connected to conflict by perpetrators, while being considered as a political attack by victims, depending upon the local historical context of tribal relations and their support/resistance of the state. In this sense, individuals belonging to one tribe could be kidnapped by another in order to resolve a land or resource-based dispute between the two, at which point the victim’s relatives might interpret the act at face value, or take offence, based on pre-existing attitudes.

Tribal violence is not legally sanctioned: it is comprised of criminal offences. These offences lead to conflict in cases where violence between tribes is read by victims as having an unjustified political or religious undercurrent. In the case of the Houthi conflict in the North, this has repeatedly reignited fighting between pro-Houthi and pro-Government tribes (Loidolt et al 2010). Owing to the importance of political and religious undercurrents in generating conflict and violence – particularly in terms of water and land disputes (Small Arms Survey 2010) – these tribal clashes need to be carefully considered in the current Yemeni transition. This is particularly important in light of upcoming constitutional reforms in July 2013, which might result in a redrafting of administrative territories and boundaries between communities.25 Tribal relations can be central to security and stability in Yemen: they need to be considered in strategies that address either security or law enforcement, particularly in terms of the ways in which crime, conflict and violence are conceptualised by tribal members.

Generally triggered by resource competition26, tribal violence is a direct product of the state’s lack of service delivery, both in terms of basic services and security. A tribe’s need to fend for itself, to compete with other tribes for political power and representation, and to protect itself from outside threats are instrumental in increasing tribal reliance upon violence. Disputes can also be a product of corruption, particularly if powerful individuals are determined to take advantage of protected underground aquifers by drilling into water reserves illegally27, at considerable cost for local communities.

A lack of law enforcement capacity and judicial guarantees has also led to the rise of equalising or retributive justice in non-tribal communities. An absence of guarantees that perpetrators of crime will be adequately punished by the Yemeni Government has led many Yemeni citizens to take justice into their own hands, sparking blood feuds (confrontations that can be carried forward through generations) and escalations in the severity of street justice (Colburn 2002: 59). Blood feuds are easily played upon by insurgencies, leading to increases in both murder and war. Meanwhile, emerging systems of patronage that have developed as a result of the state’s reliance upon tribalism to administer its territories have helped to strengthen grass-roots, institutional and elite corruption necessary for organised crime and banditry to take hold (Moghram 2004). This is because minimal levels of institutional cooperation can be instrumental in allowing criminal networks to take root in a country. Key to reversing these trends is a commitment by the Yemeni state to making law enforcement and official justice processes more relevant and more visible to ordinary citizens by creating services that prioritise their needs and their security: these needs cannot be met by the creation of a paramilitary force that undervalues the importance of crime as a source of insecurity in Yemen.

A lack of services that are targeted for their protection has led to increased self-reliance among tribes and communities and has resulted in a delegitimisation of the state and its representatives (Fattah 2011). Attempts by law enforcement personnel to intervene in local violence are often perceived as unwelcome and overly intrusive by the perpetrators of violence, their families and sometimes their neighbours or other supporters, depending on the region28. This development has previously sparked direct (and, in the cases of the Sa’ada wars and the Southern secessionist protests, prolonged) confrontations between the Yemeni state and its citizens. However, at a ground level, they have also severely damaged the popularity of armed security forces, including the military and the police29. As a result, state personnel are, in some areas, at a heightened risk of personal attack in isolated incidents that are not a part of greater conflicts (Kenney 2008).

Even though attacks against state officials may be spontaneous or unrelated to political ideologies at their core, they are defined by the state as political offences and often incur military responses. As a result, criminal actions are met with strategies that emerge from conflict-based policies and result in conflict-based responses that politicise enforcing institutions. Though some citizens would now like to see an expansion of Yemeni security services to increase public safety (Yemen Polling Centre 2013), most continue to prioritise the reformation of security services (especially in the South)30. It will likely be a long time before state-based law enforcement officers regain national trust in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. As has been recently argued by Dr Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi (2013), Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, ‘the real issue’ in Government-community relations ‘is how to build confidence’ and confidence will begin only ‘[w]hen there is real dialogue’ demonstrating that citizens’ concerns for the future ‘are taken seriously’.

Independent surveys conducted by the author have documented that tensions between law enforcement personnel and communities were particularly high throughout 2011, though surveys conducted by the Yemen Polling Centre (YPC) (2013) indicate that relations are improving in 2013, following President Saleh’s departure. The YPC data shows that there is a demand for higher levels of police community protection, though 19.6% of those surveyed said that they would feel less secure if police presence were increased in their areas (2013).

While the Yemeni people want to see change, most currently believe that informal, tribal or street justice processes provide better security than state services. 41.1% of people surveyed by the YPC believed that they were solely responsible for their own security, while 22.9% believed that security was mainly provided by tribal shaykhs (2013). Reversing this attitude is key to increasing security from a conflict and a crime perspective: helping to take responsibility for both types of security-provision out of the hands of tribes is hugely relevant for state stability and legitimacy. Evidence suggests that a cooperative system that consults tribes about security but vests responsibility for security with the state could be fairly popular in multiple tribal regions (Sharqieh 2013: 16).

Tribal violence, economically-based violence, equalising violence, violence against state officials and violence resulting from organised crime and banditry can be said to result from a failure of the state to deliver security in a sufficiently coherent, credible, effective and legitimate way. This shortfall is a product of the state’s extreme fragility and underdevelopment, which is reflected in the Government’s inability to maintain authority and a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, but it is also the result of donor attitudes that undervalue the influence of crime on insecurity.

Poor state capacity and severe nationwide underdevelopment, combined with a shortage of legitimate livelihood opportunities, is speculated to be contributing to the rate of economically motivated violent offending in Yemen31. This economic criminal activity is evident in statistical records of burglary, theft, robbery, racketeering, fraud, banditry and a number of other associated offences that have turned violent (CSO 2009). Unemployment and a lack of basic social services is also a leading cause of continuing protests and hostilities in the south of Yemen, with rising levels of aggression erupting in antisocial behaviour and causing the Yemeni Government to intervene repeatedly in what has become a priority area for reinstating the rule of law. Such incursions have not been welcomed by al-Hirak al-Janubi and others (who include Southern tribes and Arab Spring protesters without overtly secessionist aims)32. Therefore dangerous criminal and political trends are affected by similar conditions, so that integrated response strategies could effectively diminish both.

While individuals who commit violence in the pursuit of criminal objectives are clearly motivated by different factors to those who commit violence in the pursuit of political objectives, there seems to be a strong interaction between their patterns of behaviour in countries that are affected by state fragility and political instability: the Yemeni case study may not be universally generalizable, but its similarity to other conflict-affected tribalised societies especially, including Afghanistan and Tajikistan, is startling, with additional similarities to other contexts in the Middle East and North Africa region as well. Yemeni governorates affected by conflict or poverty are more likely to exhibit high levels of violent crime as a percentage of their total rates of offending. Other similar observations can be made of governorates affected by income inequality, poor service delivery, or severe instability, with implications for fragile states more generally. Meanwhile, rising levels of uncategorised criminal violence (e.g., social violence, domestic abuse, hooliganism, or other forms of illicit behaviour) seem to be emerging in communities located in high-stress, violent environments in Yemen, especially among children and young people.

Though crime and conflict are independent factors, they each form part of a complex tapestry of violence and insecurity in Yemen. Analysing one without awareness of the other can lead to serious shortfalls in understandings of the country’s fragility and instability. The six points of intersection between crime and conflict highlighted in this section help to showcase specific areas in which the marginalisation of crime in security policy have impacted upon the (re-)generation of political violence.


Yemen’s rates of crime and patterns of conflict are intrinsically connected to state fragility, as this is manifested by a lack of territorial control, poor legitimacy, authority-based weaknesses, and a lack of service delivery, particularly in relation to law-enforcement and security-delivery. A prioritisation of conflict over crime has emerged naturally from the militarisation of the Yemeni state and its policing structures. It has also been supported by international and regional donors, who prioritise counter-terrorism and stabilisation strategies that are intended to generate increased levels of public safety and security. However, such strategies do not acknowledge the complex tapestry of violence in Yemen, and therefore are not designed to provide protection to civilians from other forms of attack. This limitation not only allows offending to escalate unchecked in Yemen, particularly through the rise of retributive violence, but also enables crime to feed back into and regenerate conflict, most often through crime that can be linked to resource competition or tribalism.

While these challenges imply that crime and conflict in Yemen should be dealt with according to an integrated strategy, there is also a clear need for targeted responses to both of these issues. This is particularly important because crime has not been effectively addressed by existing security strategies in Yemen, so that it is on the increase and cannot be resolved through negotiation or other peace-building strategies.

Greater challenges stem from a lack of understanding, or perhaps a lack of interest, as to why people offend in Yemen and a failure to mitigate the causes of crime. This is not a problem that is limited to fragile states, but the overall sense of discouragement and apathy among policymakers towards non-political violence in conflict-affected fragile states is no longer excusable, particularly given its implications for public welfare. While ending violence in fragile states may ultimately require a holistic approach, the severe lack of research on criminal violence in Yemen likely necessitates that criminal violence and conflict be investigated separately and addressed in tandem.