Yemen's rumour mill has gone into overdrive after the reported discovery of a tunnel, some 80-90 metres long, running between what appears to be a large warehouse and the home of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Supporters of the ex-dictator are claiming this was part of an assassination plot.
Though the tunnel part of the story appears to be true, evidence of an actual plot to kill Saleh still seems rather thin. It's possible that the claim is true – Saleh certainly has plenty of enemies – but it also rather conveniently fits the post-presidential narrative of Saleh as victim rather than oppressor.
Without ruling out the possibility of an assassination plot, it's worth asking what other purpose such a tunnel might have served, if not for an attack on the ex-president's home.
After being forced out of office, Saleh chose to remain in Yemen and continued meddling in politics – thanks largely to the immunity from prosecution that was granted by parliament. Having made a decision to stay in Sanaa it would be logical for Saleh to give some thought to his own security. What if his home came under attack, or the political climate changed and there were attempts to arrest him?
One obvious precaution would be to prepare an escape route – for which a tunnel might be the solution. Whether that is what he actually did remains to be seen, but it's not beyond the bounds of possibility.
We should not assume that just because the tunnelling seems to have started in a neighbouring building and headed towards Saleh's house that it was necessarily intended to attack the house. It might simply have been the most practical way to construct an escape tunnel, since digging outwards from the house would be more likely to attract attention, especially with so much earth to dispose of.
A key question here is who discovered the tunnel, and how. So far there is no definite answer. One unconfirmed story is that a neighbour of Saleh became suspicious and contacted the ex-president who then sent his guards to investigate. So maybe the existence of the tunnel did come as a surprise to Saleh. Alternatively, realising that he could no longer keep it a secret, he might have decided to accuse his enemies of trying to attack him.
Another question that is still unanswered at the moment is who owns the building where the tunnelling was started.
The "escape tunnel" idea is only a theory but it's worth keeping in mind and considering in the light of whatever new evidence emerges.
By way of further background, it may also be worth recalling the claims last June that Saleh's supporters had been attempting to tunnel into the presidential palace to attack his successor, President Hadi.
One of the tunnel pictures posted on Twitter
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 12 August 2014