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The conflict in Yemen and how three S’poreans got involved

SINGAPORE — Mohamed Mohideen Mohamed Jais was just 18 when he left Singapore to study in Yemen.

A follower of the Houthi shouts slogans as he raises his weapon during a rally against U.S. support to Saudi-led air strikes, in Yemen's capital Sanaa, March 1, 2016.  Photo: REUTERS

A follower of the Houthi shouts slogans as he raises his weapon during a rally against U.S. support to Saudi-led air strikes, in Yemen's capital Sanaa, March 1, 2016. Photo: REUTERS

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SINGAPORE — Mohamed Mohideen Mohamed Jais was just 18 when he left Singapore to study in Yemen.

Then, as now, Yemen faced a rebellion from the Houthis, an insurgent group who belong to a branch of Shia Islam. Shias make up about a third of the country.

The Houthis have been warring intermittently with the state from 2004. In August 2009, the same year Mohideen arrived in Yemen, the army launched a new offensive against the Houthis in their homebase in the north.

This was also the same year that the Al-Qaeda branches of Yemen and Saudi Arabia merged to form Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Qaeda had been active in Yemen since 2000 when a suicide bomber attacked the American naval vessel, the USS Cole, which was then docked in the port of Aden. The attack killed 17 American military personnel. Since then, AQAP had been responsible for a number of attacks in Yemen as well as efforts to attack the US.

Little is known publicly about Mohideen’s activities in Yemen. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), he and two other Singaporeans got involved in Yemen’s sectarian conflict after arriving in the strife-torn country for studies. The ministry announced on Wednesday that the trio had been dealt with under the Internal Security Act (ISA), but did not disclose the name or exact location of the school where the three Singaporeans studied.

Mohideen was the first of the three Singaporeans to arrive in Yemen. He was joined by the second Singaporean, Mohammad Razif Yahya, then 21, in January 2010.

A month after Razif arrived, a ceasefire was signed between the Houthis and the government but this ceasefire broke down in December.

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire, the Houthis joined with Yemeni protesters inspired by the Arab Spring. The protests went on for months until Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh finally agreed to resign in November 2011. He handed over his post to his deputy, Mr Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was inaugurated in February 2012.

About a year and a half after the inauguration, the third and oldest member of the Singaporean trio, Amiruddin Sawir, went to Yemen. Amiruddin was around 50 when he joined Razif in July 2013. Both men would continue to live in Yemen until around the middle of last year.

A year after Amiruddin arrived, mass protests took place in Yemen following a controversial increase in fuel price. Houthi rebels, who were heavily involved in the anti-government protests, took over most of Yemen’s capital Sana in September 2014.

It is unclear when the Singaporean trio picked up arms and got directly involved with the sectarian conflict in Yemen. According to the MHA, Razif, Amiruddin, and Mohideen performed armed sentry duties and were tasked with protecting the religious institution they were in from possible incursions by the Houthis.

Mohideen was given an AK-47 and told to return fire if there was an assault by the Houthis. But he did not encounter any firefights.

Razif and Amiruddin went further. According to the MHA, the duo were “prepared to kill and be killed as ‘martyrs’ in Yemen”.

Rafiz volunteered for sniper training, which he reportedly put to use fighting the Houthis. Amiruddin, who was armed with an AK-47 rifle, was also involved in a firefight with the Houthis.

Meanwhile, the Houthis continued to press on with their southwards offensive, forcing President Hadi to flee. At this point, Saudi Arabia, believing that the Houthis were backed by regional rival Iran, assembled an Arab military coalition force to attack Houthi targets in Yemen. The Saudi-led attacks began in March 2015 and continue today.

As the fighting raged on, both Razif and Amiruddin separately left Yemen in April and June 2015 for unexplained reasons. They were both arrested in Singapore under the ISA in July and were each issued a two-year Order of Detention the following month.

“By taking up arms in Yemen, they have demonstrated a readiness to use violence to pursue their religious cause,” MHA said in its statement on Wednesday. “As such, they are assessed to pose a security threat to Singapore.”

Mohideen completed his studies in early 2011, but it is unclear when he left Yemen or when he returned to Singapore. The MHA said it has placed a Restriction Order (RO) on him with effect from this month.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam warned that the government would take stern action against Singaporeans who participate in armed conflict abroad as they could end up bringing those conflicts and their roots back home.

“Let’s take the Sunni-Shia divide, if you are prepared to fight for the Sunni against the Shia, or the Shia against the Sunni, you might bring that here too,” he told reporters. “What we can say is Singaporeans citizens do not participate in armed conflict overseas, and we will take action against anyone because it carries very serious security implications.”

Over in Yemen, the conflict between the Houthis and the Arab coalition drags on. According to the United Nations, about 3,000 civilians have died from the fighting. As a result of the chaos, Al-Qaeda has gained in strength there. The Islamic State has also managed to grab a foothold in the country.

In early March, it was reported that Houthi representatives were in Saudi Arabia to conduct peace talks. However, there has been no word on the progress of the talks.

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