February 1, 2010  

Flashpoint: Yemen: Who knew?

A not-so-new terrorism trouble spot

In the days after the foiled Christmas Day attack on a Detroit-bound airliner, some were quick to call for a new front in the war on terror, this time in Yemen, where the Nigerian-born “Undie-Bomber” was in contact with al-Qaida.

While the emphasis on Yemen from a counterterrorism perspective has waxed and waned over the years, it has long been on our terror radar, going back to at least the late 1990s.

It is unfortunate that we have had to become intimately reacquainted with Yemen, a little-known but strategically located country with an ancient history, including being the home of the mythical Queen of Sheba, in such a near-tragic manner.

Yemen came into our counterterrorism consciousness most starkly with the al-Qaida attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000, when a small boat laden with explosives struck the American destroyer, killing 17 sailors. But Yemen’s contact with al-Qaida precedes this, stretching back at least to 1998, when the terror group attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, reportedly passing through Yemen and using Yemeni documentation for travel. Al-Qaida attacked a French tanker off Yemen in 2002 as well.

Unfortunately, Yemen faces significant challenges that make it fertile ground for al-Qaida. First, experts consider the central government weak, undemocratic and corrupt. Moreover, the country of 23 million is the poorest in the Arab world, with 40 percent unemployment. It especially affects the young, where 75 percent of the population is under 25 years of age. (Median age is 17.) And the prospects are not good for improving the economy, where oil, the country’s main commodity, provides 75 percent of the government’s revenue. Worse yet, it is expected to be depleted in as little as a decade, according to some estimates.

Perhaps more seriously for its counterterrorism efforts, Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, faces major sources of internal turmoil, including an insurgency and a secessionist movement — enough to distract any government. It is not surprising, since Yemen has long been politically fractured. North Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire. The British dominated South Yemen from the 1800s through the late 1960s, when it withdrew. The South then became a Marxist state, resulting in a huge migration north. The North and South were not friendly, until they formally became one in 1990, creating a state twice the size of Wyoming.

But in a country where some experts claim that the societal mosaic is as complex as Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan, troubles began shortly after unification with a southern secessionist movement forming in 1994. Led by the same ruler, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, for more than 30 years, the government is considered by Southerners to be biased toward the North with regard to wealth-sharing (from oil), higher education and government jobs. (Critics contend Saleh’s family and tribe hold numerous important government posts.) In the North, the government is fighting a Shiite rebellion, led by the Houthis, who may be receiving support from Iran, according to experts. Military action displaced as many as 200,000 in the region, and Saudi Arabia has taken steps to protect its border.

Then, of course, there is the resurgence of al-Qaida.

Yemen is home to the now-infamous al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the alliance of the Saudi and Yemeni wings of al-Qaida that formed in early 2009 — and which reportedly recruited and trained the 23-year-old would-be Christmas Day plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In a little-reported but notorious attack in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August, the group, which numbers 200-300 by some estimates, made its mark with an attempt to assassinate Saudi security chief, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who led the kingdom’s campaign against al-Qaida. The suicide bomber, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and a graduate of the Saudi jihadist rehabilitation program run by the prince, posed as a repentant former militant to get close to his target and then tried used a similar explosive to Abdulmutallab’s.

But AQAP is not just using Yemen as a base for attacks abroad; it has also targeted Yemeni officials and government offices, embassies, Western housing compounds, hotels and foreign tourists.

The American and British embassies in Sanaa were closed for several days in early January due to an al-Qaida plot against the facilities, based on credible intelligence.

Al-Qaida, of course, hopes to exploit any anti-government sentiment, publicly offering support for the southern secessionist movement earlier this year, and playing upon any ties Sanaa has with unpopular Washington to increase its appeal.

With instability in the North and South, potentially leading to the regime’s fall and the state’s dissolution, the AQAP threat pales in comparison —even though it may have a hand in both problems, especially the southern one.

Worse yet, government military or security pressure in the North and South could thrust Sana’s opponents into al-Qaida’s embrace — exactly what AQAP is likely hoping will happen.


Washington certainly has its issues with Sanaa. Some insist the Yemenis have not cracked down on al-Qaida to the extent possible and, in some cases, have even given tacit approval to its presence, not wanting to alienate domestic groups that find its fundamentalist views appealing.

Indeed, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concern at a January public forum about al-Qaida finding sanctuary in Yemen as well as neighboring Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden, where al Shahab is fighting the Somali transitional government.

But from 9/11 through 2004, al-Qaida in Yemen was actually on the defensive and U.S.-Yemeni counterterrorism ties were solid. Things began to go awry, however, especially beginning in 2006, when more than 20 al-Qaida escaped from a Sanaa jail. Some claim Yemen’s security forces may have played a role in the jailbreak, which has led to concerns about any joint counterterrorism efforts due to possible al-Qaida penetrations. Making matters worse, one of the fugitives now heads AQAP. Some of the escapees, including a few involved in the Cole attack, were also party to the 2008 strike on the U.S. embassy in Yemen, which killed nearly 20, including an American. Sanaa has also refused to extradite the planner of the Cole attack, saying Yemeni law prevents such a transfer.

Washington is also troubled by Sanaa’s jihadi rehabilitation program, which has been characterized as superficial and ineffective, since little is done upon program completion to reintegrate the supposed former militants into society (as found in the Saudi program).

While Yemen claims to have reformed more than 300 “militant Islamists,” U.S. forces have captured some “graduates” in Iraq. Even for those who do not return to active jihad, they may still have sympathies for their former colleagues, supporting them in nonviolent ways. (AQAP could also tap a significant pool of older recruits in Yemen itself, whose experience goes back to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the Balkans — even Yemen’s civil war. Beyond this, there are still some 100 Yemenis, who remain at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, awaiting disposition.)

Washington is also concerned about the activities of Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al Aulaqi, an AQAP spiritual leader who was once in Yemeni custody and had contact with airline bomber Abdulmutallab — and maybe many others who constitute a national security risk.

There is reason for worry: In addition to Abdulmutallab, al Aulaqi appears to also have had ties to Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 in November at Fort Hood, Texas.

For its part, Sanaa is concerned about the on-again, off-again nature of the relationship, especially international aid, and the controversies surrounding U.S. policies in the Middle East, from Israel-Palestine to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Saleh government is also worried about the blowback from military-focused counterterrorism actions, while ignoring the vast societal and economic problems the Middle Eastern nation faces, threatening the regime’s health and longevity.

In addition, Sanaa is anxious about further disclosures of sensitive information such as the 2003 Predator drones strikes against terrorists in Yemen, which could turn public opinion against the central government, which fears pushing fence-sitters toward al-Qaida.


The U.S. is not likely to send any troops to Yemen beyond the limited number of Special Forces that are already involved in training Yemeni security forces such as the Central Security Service, the country’s main counterterrorism unit. That is for a couple of reasons. First, the State and Defense departments’ resources are tight with ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to a whole host of standing military contingencies and major foreign policy challenges that also require attention.

Media reports indicate the Pentagon will increase funding for counterterrorism training for Yemen from about $70 million last year to more than $150 million this year, hoping to enable Sanaa’s capabilities. The State Department is expected to plus up foreign aid to more than $120 million over the next three years. The focus of that assistance will be battling Yemen’s rampant poverty by creating jobs and improving other basic government services.

The point of the assistance, as in other similar counterterrorism efforts, is to increase faith in the central government, undermining al-Qaida as a reasonable alternative for services or security. Unfortunately, pervasive corruption will hamper that effort.

The U.S. and Britain have also announced plans to fund a new Yemeni counterterrorism unit. Fortunately, Sanaa seems willing to act, as marked by two major December military operations against al-Qaida.

Indeed, for the moment, it looks as if it will be a Yemeni fight, backed by U.S. training, aid and intelligence. In early January, Mullen said there would be no U.S. military intervention in Yemen.

Not surprisingly, Sanaa stated there are limits to bilateral military cooperation, opposing any direct U.S. military action in Yemen. It is likely hoping not to replicate the situation in places such as Pakistan, where close, overt ties with Washington can be counterproductive for the prevailing government in swaying public opinion.

The leadership in Sanaa is, of course, interested in regime survival first and foremost and cautious of being too closely aligned with the U.S., since anti-Americanism remains high in tribal and religiously-conservative Yemen.

It is interesting how the smallest and least-known states can often become the most troublesome, indeed, threatening. Strategists tend to spend their time on the big powers such as China and Russia, even Iran. That, of course, makes perfect sense, major power conflicts are what shapes history to a great extent. But lawless, sometimes-forgotten places, such as Afghanistan in the years running up to 9/11 are significant in this new age of terrorism. Failed, or failing, states provide the ungoverned spaces, which yield fertile soil for groups like al-Qaida to plant the seeds of terrorist recruiting, planning, training, operating and executing.

Considering the significant challenges facing Yemen (coincidently the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors), it could easily move down a road similar to that of pre-9/11 Afghanistan or even today’s Somalia, now a haven for terror as well as modern-day piracy.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right when she said in a January speech: “In countries that are incubators of extremism, like Yemen, the odds are long. But the cost of doing nothing is potentially far greater.”

That is true, especially today, when a young African from a privileged background can take up the mantle of jihad in the Middle East and travel across Europe to try to take the lives of nearly 300 innocent people in North America.

As such, it is clear the international community must develop a comprehensive plan that addresses the significant matters that allows the likes of AQAP to flourish in Yemen, from economics to politics to security.

Considering their plots outside Yemen, a failure to move against them, not only by Yemen and the U.S,, but in concert with Middle Eastern, African, Asian and European states will only mean more attacks.

But more than that, al-Qaida and their allies continue to broadly test the mettle, determination and defenses of their targets. Giving up the struggle to oppose it vigorously will mean that terrorism’s blight will continue to be boundless, resulting in numerous yet-untold misfortunes.

PETER BROOKES is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.