General Mohamed Ali Mohsen talks to Yemen Times:
Ali Saeed (author), Ali Saeed (photographer), Sadeq Al-Faqih (author)
Mohsen, who comes from the Sanhan region of Sana’a governorate, the hometown of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been working with the military since 1978, the year that Saleh ascended to power.
Mohsen graduated from the Sana’a military college in September 1977, and climbed the military ladder, occupying several crucial positions.
In 1981, he became the staff officer of the Air Defense. In 1982, he took a leadership office in the Air Defense Forces. After the Air Forces were reorganized in both South and North Yemen, he was appointed to the post of deputy chief of the Yemeni Air Forces from 1989 until 1994.
In early 1995, he was appointed as the head of the Southern Military Region, and remained in that position until late 1999.
Mohsen commanded the Eastern Military Region, which includes the governorates of Hadramout, Shabwa and Al-Mahra, from 1999 until 2012, when he was removed from office by the new president Abd Rabo Mansour Hadi. He is now deputy staff officer for Yemen’s Land Forces.
Sadeq Al-Faqih and Ali Saeed of the Yemen Times conducted the following interview with General Mohsen
When you were the leader of the Southern Military Region, there were jihadists in Abyan who had returned to southern Yemen from fighting in Afghanistan. How did you deal with them?
At that time, there were some young jihadists in the Hatab Mountain [in Sarar district in Abyan]. I notified the leadership in Sana’a. They sent a team of Islamic clerics, headed by Sheikh Abdulmajeed Al-Zandani, to Aden to hold talks with them to persuade them to abandon their extremist ideologies, but they refused.
We clashed with the jihadists in Aden and they withdrew to the Hatab Mountain in Sarar district and set up permanent camp there.
In Sarar, they killed the security chief of the district in an armed ambush.
How many were they?
I have no accurate figures on their number. However, the government at the time was colluding with them. And in 1998, the same jihadists attacked a group of tourists in Abyan.
I attacked the jihadists’ hideouts in Abyan with a full-scale military campaign and arrested Zein Al-Abidin Al-Mihdar, who was later sentenced to death by the central government.
Al-Mihdar received the death sentence not because of his ideology, but because of his attack and kidnapping of tourists.
Are those jihadists the same who now run Abyan and fight the army, known as Ansar Al-Sharia?
I do not know. I left the Southern Military Region 12 years ago.
Who is behind the assassinations of officers of the Political Security Organization in Hadramout?
It is may be the jihadists who call themselves Ansar Al-Sharia. I consider them rebels against Islamic law [which they claim to support].
When you were in Hadramout, a French oil Tanker was attacked. As the leader of the Eastern Military Region then, were you up-to-date on the investigations’ findings, or were other intelligence organizations carried the investigation without involving you in the process?
I had information, and warned the French of a potential attack against the oil tanker, as they were used to have their own service boats and no defense boats. The boats received and met with the oil tanker only three miles off the port without presence of the coast guards.
When we warned them of a potential attack against the tanker, they paid no attention.
After the attack took place, a fact-finding committee came from Sana’a headed by the minister of transportation.
Had you been briefed on the investigation process?
Why? You were the military leader of the region.
I do not know. You should have asked me this question at the time. This is a topic I cannot comment on.
On the southern issue, there have been many committees set up to work out the issues of the Southern Movement, but all the committee reports end up in the archives of the President’s office.
There is proverb in Yemen, which says if you want to complicate a problem, set up a committee. But I think if there was an intention to solve the southern issue, the best time to do that would have been immediately after the 1994 civil war.
And there was a good proposal from certain high ranked military leaders, who suggested that the southern issue must be viewed as an internal conflict, and not one party won against the other.
But, the leadership at the time paid no attention to this opinion, and many southern military officers who returned to their camps were excluded from their jobs.
Many say that your supportive position of the youth revolution was just a decision planned with Saleh?
Look, I took a position toward the [Arab Spring] revolution since it spread from Tunisia to Egypt. From the beginning, we said that something must happen in Yemen. When the Yemeni people took to the streets, every wise man in the armed forces, not just me, understood that the duty of the armed forces is to protect the people.
And so that all Yemenis inside and outside the country are aware, that the March 18 Day of Dignity was the breaking point between us and the previous leadership.
Some said that we are power lovers and were planning for something [Irrelevant to the protection of civilians]. But all that is totally untrue and the evidence has been clear since we made our decision.
Is the arming of military units documented?
Of course, except among the Republican Guard (Ahmed Saleh’s forces).
Why do we see weapons given even to men in neighborhoods of the capital Sana’a, including Glock handguns and G3 Kalashnikovs, and not being distributed to other military units nationwide?
Since 1994, no single new weapon entered the hands of the armed forces and the new arming has been focused on the Republican Guard.
Does the arming of the Republican Guard go through the Ministry of Defense, or do they do it themselves?
Only the troops’ salaries go through the Ministry of Defense. As for the weapons, they buy them in private deals and it is paid for by the state’s budget. It never goes through the Ministry of Defense.
Does this accord with world military standards?
No. This is only according to their own standards.
A document has been leaked that in 2003, Saleh directed 25 percent of the armed forces’ budget to go to the Republican Guard. Is this true and had you received such orders?
This is old news. It also sparked many meetings and disputes among military leaders. And not all military leaders were submissive to such orders. Some military leaders debated and denied such instructions. This is also one of the key causes behind the youth revolution.
Some press reports say that oil revenues in Hadramout went to the leadership of the Southern Military Region. Is that true?
Ask the either the current or former oil minister.
Why was Saleh’s decision in removing you from the Eastern Military Leadership and appoint Brigadier General Bin Burik declined by military units and the revolutionary youth in Hadramout?
The decision came at a critical time, since we had just aligned with the revolution. Had I left office, it would have been like surrendering myself and my troops to death by Bin Burik.
My removal was unacceptable by the standards of all officers and troops. But when the decision came from a president elected by the Yemeni people, I did not hold on for even a minute.
When the decision came, I called my successor [General Ali Al-Jayfi]. He came to my house. We traveled together to the Eastern Military Region. I visited each military unit and personally handed him each unit.
How do you feel about the fierce media campaign against you by Saleh’s supporters, particularly about talk of “Mohamed Ali Mohsen’s castle,” referring to your fortress in Hadda in a vein similar to stories of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons plants. What was inside the fortress?
Nothing , just equipment belonging to my brother, who works as a construction contractor.
But at the time, pro-Saleh media said weapons and ammunition were to be found inside “the castle.”
They brought the weapons in themselves.
What is the difference between a soldier in the 27th Mechanized Brigade and one in the 3rd Republican Guard Brigade, in terms of supplies?
Ask the supply unit at the Ministry of Defense and they will tell you. The daily food ration for each soldier in the Republican Guard is 150 grams per day, while the soldier’s ration in any other military unit is only 75 grams.
Why are there no Special Forces with advanced weapons stationed in Hadramout to fight terrorists and protect important interests such as oil companies? Or are Special Forces just guarding neighborhoods of Sana’a’s Influential people?
You answered your own question. Security forces in Hadramout are weak and the units of the Central Security Forces are not powerful and sufficient enough.
What I was able to do in Hadramout is train and qualify guards for oil establishments and so far no attack has been recorded against any oil establishment in the governorate.
Did you meet the activist Tawakul Karman in Al-Mukalla?
Of course. Twice. She came to Hadramout and I received her at my office both times. And I made an effort to bring her back to Sana’a to resolve her disputes with certain activists in the Change Square.
Who did she meet in Hadramout?
She met leaders of the revolution in Hadramout and members of the Southern Movement.
How did the presidential elections go in Hadramout?
I participated in many elections and this election was the only one with no personal financial support .And the turnout to polling stations was excellent. But there were problems with some members of the Southern Movement, who are not peaceful anymore.
How many foreign military experts work with the Ministry of Defense, particularly in the Republican Guard? And why are they not being replaced with local experts?
As far as I know that they have officers from Jordan and Iraq. Five years ago I suggested that Yemeni officers should be used, as they are much more qualified than those recruited from abroad.
It is said that some people are working to hinder the performance of the defense minister. Is this so?
I have information from the minister himself that he experiences harassment in his job, but the man is determined to go forward and I do not think that he will give up.
What is your message to the armed forces?
I hope to see a national army with no tribal or family affiliation, an army which embodies unity and cooperation for the interests of the nation.