On January 21, 2022, Yemen was knocked offline after an airstrike struck a major part of the country’s Internet infrastructure in the city of Hodeidah. We spoke with Fahmi al-Baheth, aid worker and digital rights defender, for more information on the roots and consequences of the country’s current Internet crisis.
1) There is a great degree of pointing the finger regarding the current Internet outage. How do you assess the primary reasons for Yemen being offline at the moment? Are reports that it is due to an airstrike accurate?
In war time, it is normal to hear several accounts and to witness the warring parties exchange blame—in this case the Internet outage. But what we can be sure of is that there was an airstrike that targeted the telecommunication facilities in Hodeidah. The facility connects Yemen to the FALCON international cable, and because of the airstrike, the Internet was disconnected. However, it is still unclear the extent of the damage and how long it may take to restore the service. Regardless of who is behind the attack, Yemen is now isolated from the world as war intensifies on the ground. This is enough to condemn whoever is behind this form of forced exclusion.
2) How is the current outage affecting Yemenis, both on a political and personal level? What has the state of Yemeni Internet been like over the course of the war so far?
Usually in countries experiencing conflicts, the conflicting parties exploit the absence of the Internet to commit more human rights violations. The situation in Yemen is no different, and since the beginning of the war, all parties have consistently exploited the telecommunications sector and the Internet.
Although access to the Internet is considered a human right—and should be recognized as such by the warring actors in conflicts and wars—since the beginning of the war in 2015, many websites have been blocked and the communications infrastructure has been targeted by air strikes. Fiber-optic cables in the internal network have been subjected to numerous attacks and intentional sabotage. The telecommunications companies in the public and private sectors were not able to maintain or upgrade telecommunications stations and facilities, nor capable of providing them with modern equipment and technologies (particularly importing much needed telecommunications equipment from outside Yemen) or to repair damaged facilities located in active battle zones.
Prior to the conflict, Yemen was supposed to be connected to the international sea cable SeaMeWe5 in 2016 in Hodeidah, but this did not happen. Because of the division caused by the war in the country as a whole, we have two Ministries of Communications and Information technology, and this negatively affected the operation of the AAE-1 submarine cable, which was connected to and technically installed in the link station in the city of Aden. The dispute between the state-owned telecommunication companies, TeleYemen in Sana’a and TeleYemen in Aden, has prevented the activation or the the use of the cable which would provide the Internet with a high amount of bandwidth.
The land cables linking Yemen to Saudi Arabia and Oman were disconnected without much explanation provided by any authority, and the international Internet lines for Yemen were restricted to a single cable. Yemen has been isolated from the world. This conflict has deprived Yemenis of access to the Internet, and the attack in Hodeidah completely deprived them from the only form of communication to the outside world.
3) What are the urgent steps that you would recommend authorities on various sides of the conflict to take to fix the situation?
Depoliticize the topic of telecommunications and make the sector neutral from political parties and armed conflicts as a basic human right; have cooperation between telecom and Internet operators to quickly assess the damage and speed up repair of the link station in Hodeidah, as well as connecting it to cables in Mahra; reach an agreement between the two parties to the conflict to operate the international cable in Aden AAE-1 and connect it to the network inside Yemen.
The telecommunications companies and government agencies on both sides must also be more transparent and clear and inform the public of the reality of the challenges they face. The current ambiguity and lack of clarity effectively confirms that there are intentions to use Internet and communications as a tool of war between the opponents.
4) Is there any potential role for international or regional actors like the UN, the coalition, or other key stakeholders? If so, what could they do to help?
The coalition should allow telecommunications companies in the public and private sectors to operate freely by removing restrictions on the import of technical equipment that would maintain and develop telecommunication networks. In return, because of the conflicting parties’ use of the Internet as a tool in the conflict, this problem must be included in the agenda of the negotiations sponsored by the United Nations, including taking the necessary measures against those who violate the right of Yemenis to communicate or who seek to silence their voices to the world.
5) Looking past the current crisis, do you have any broader recommendations for how local and international actors can improve the Internet situation in Yemen? What are the most important, broad pressing needs.
It is unfortunate that the issues of the Internet and digital rights have not received the required attention from the international community, the political community, and even journalists. The topic is another forgotten facet of the forgotten war in Yemen, even if some think that it is not a priority. During recent years, digital rights in Yemen were not seriously taken by the authorities, nor by the human rights bodies of the United Nations, and they were not referred to in international human rights reports. Therefore, it will be important to take this aspect into account to ensure that such violations are not repeated. The silencing of the nation experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis cannot be permitted.
Having a stable Internet would contribute to building peace, encouraging dialogue, mitigating human rights violations, and raising the low economic level in Yemen, even at the individual level. Therefore, the international community should work on strategic projects to improve and raise the level of the telecommunications sector in a way that would contribute to sustainable development.
Fahmi Al-Baheth is founding member and ex-president of Internet Society – Yemen Chapter, a digital rights activist, and a digital safety consultant.
Adam Baron is a writer and political analyst. He was based in Yemen from 2011–2014. He is also a YPC Board Member.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.
Fatima Saleh (Arabic)
Artwork by Ahmed Al-Arefi