Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Suitcase Exploded and Changed Yemen's Features

Working closely with a powerful leader, be it Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, or Ali Abdullah Saleh, is no walk in the roses. But the rewards are undeniable. It provides you with protection that even constitutions, which often serve the leader's interests, cannot offer. It grants you influence amid ministers and military personnel, making them feel that you're close to the president's ear and a trusted confidant. You become part of the decision-making circle, helping you uncover the ins and outs, as well as the conspiracies. Working closely with the ultimate decision-maker is an an absolute privilege.

Every ascent comes with a price. Being in such a position makes you the voice and shadow of the president, immersing you in his inner circle, and requiring you to mend his hasty stances and reprehensible phrases. I came to this realization when I interviewed Gaddafi’s Chief of Protocol, Nuri al-Mismari, who was truly the shadow of the leader on land, sea and air. My belief was further strengthened when I met men who worked with Saddam in the palace, the party, or the army.

This crossed my mind when I received the news of the death of Major General Ali Al-Shater, head of the Moral Guidance Department in the Yemeni Army.

For decades, he was the closest man to Ali Abdullah Saleh and a friend of journalists, who flocked to meet the president. The military-media person kept a smile on despite the storms that were blowing from Ali Saleh’s office and against him.

Ali Al-Shater was well aware that managing Yemen was difficult and intricate. Drawing clear boundaries between the state’s tribe and the tribal states was challenging. The same is true between the constitution and the president’s will.

Yemen’s politics are like seasons. A hot summer, a fleeting spring, and an autumn burdened with casualties, like leaves falling in the treacherous season.

Al-Shater enjoyed his role as a journalist, especially being the editor-in-chief of the “September 26” newspaper. He mastered the profession and engaged in extensive relationships with its employees. He was interested in informing the visiting journalists about the questions raised in Sanaa, so he invited them to his council to meet with ministers, writers, and intellectuals.

I remember, one day, a heated debate erupted about globalization and its effects on countries and societies. Suddenly, it occurred to one of those present to mention Al-Mutanabbi. The globalization subject was soon replaced by a duel on the poet’s biography, which the dust of history did not succeed in obscuring.

The dialogue was amusing, as Al-Mutanabbi was the master of tweets a thousand years before Twitter. And in Yemen, the past is never forgotten.

Ali Al-Shater was faithful to his role and duty, even if he did not always agree with the president’s stances and surprises. I told him one day that I had heard strange answers from the president. I asked him about the escalation of security unrest in Sanaa, and he replied that the number of people being killed there was less than those who are killed daily in New York. The comparison was not accurate.

I told him that I had asked the president about the escape of al-Qaeda members from prison, and he replied that some of them might return. I inquired about the reason for their return, and he replied that some of them were still in contact with the security forces after their escape. The connections are weird. Al-Shater only smiled and said that Yemen has many peculiarities, including the president’s own way.

Ali Al-Shater’s life was never easy. He was not involved in bloody violence, but he lived in the midst of turmoil and victims. After the Houthis seized power, he was subjected to persecution and harassment that doubled his pain. He considered his work within the ranks of the state as a service that did not deserve punishment, especially since his name was not mentioned in the list of wanted opponents.

Following the assassination of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, I realized that Al-Shater has spent his life in the shadow of three slain military chiefs. This was enough to flood the memory with terrifying scenes.

On October 11, 1977, two days before his scheduled visit to Aden, President Ibrahim al-Hamdi was assassinated after a harsh experience, during which he managed to curb the influence of the tribal sheikhs, and their attempt to impose a form of tutelage on the army.

Al-Hamdi was assassinated at a luncheon to which he was invited. Decades later, the circumstances of the crime still raise questions about the role of the two presidents who succeeded him.

Months later, fate will intervene to keep Ali Al-Shater alive. The president’s name was Ahmed Al-Ghashmi. On June 24, he received an envoy from South Yemen who came on a sensitive mission. The president shook hands with the man who opened a suitcase, which killed him along with the president.

Al-Shater was supposed to be present at the meeting, but a call the night before from the presidential palace in Aden advised Al-Ghashmi to be alone when receiving the envoy due to the sensitivity of the issues he would raise.

Before entering the president’s office, the booby-trapped envoy stopped in a nearby office, that of Ali al-Shater, who was stunned minutes after the sound of the explosion. The assassination of Al-Ghashmi was the opportunity that Ali Abdullah Saleh seized to jump to power, where he resided for 33 years before losing his palace and his life, even without a suitcase or an envoy.

I asked Al-Shater about the incident, and he said that a security official in the Yemeni Socialist Party had asked an explosives expert to prepare a suitcase that would explode as soon as it was opened.

The envoy was aware that he was going on a suicide mission, which is why he wrote a farewell letter to his leaders in the party. I asked about the explosives expert, and Al-Shater contented himself with saying that he had no information about him.

Years later, my profession required me to travel one day to a distant country to meet an international “wanted person”, who chose to hide to escape the tracking devices. I spent days with the man, who had never met a reporter or given amy statement. At the end of the visit, as I was bidding him farewell, I saw that he was disturbed when a picture of Ali Saleh was broadcast on television. He moved his head as if expressing remorse.

He said: “Ghassan, I have grown fond of you and trusted you. I have decided to place the truth in your hands. I will leave you with a secret that cannot be disclosed while I am alive. I am the man who booby-trapped the suitcase that killed Al-Ghashmi.”

Out of respect for the man, I kept the secret to myself. Al-Ghashmi was assassinated, and a few days later the President of South Yemen, Salem Rabi` Ali (Salmeen), was also killed. The man who planned the assassination of Al-Ghashmi saw the same fate.

Many years later, Ali Saleh was murdered and Al-Shater was gone, after he was preceded by the man who booby-trapped the suitcase that changed the face of Yemen. A suitcase with many coffins.