Foreign Policy

Inside Yemen's Shadow War Arsenal

Editor's Note: In an August 7, 2013 Foreign Policy op-ed, Gordon Lubold and Noah Shachtman write that the recent foiling of a major terrorist plot against Western interests in Yemen reflects the need for continued U.S. spending on counterterrorism programs in the country. Despite criticism over U.S. incapacity to oversee these programs, Washington and Sanaa will continue to be key partners in fighting the shadow war on terror, they argue.

Since November of 2011, the United States has pledged nearly $600 million to Yemen for everything from spy drones to opinion polls to pickup trucks as part of a shadow war to fight terrorism there. But how much Washington is getting for its money is an open question, even within U.S. government circles.

Reports that the Yemenis may have helped to foil a major terrorist plot against Western interests in the region point up the need for an effective security assistance program in a country now re-emerging as a frontline in what used to be called the war on terror. (Even if the Yemeni government itself finds the plot a bit hard to believe.) It's also become equally clear that instability and a lack of oversight has posed real challenges to tracking U.S. counterterrorism aid there. The security threat that forced the State Department to shutter more than 20 embassies and diplomatic posts this week reflects the increasingly "diffuse" threat from al Qaeda. But the plot that Yemeni officials claim they thwarted Wednesday now raises questions about how effective American counterterrorism assistance is and whether more, or less aid, is needed in the future.

Only a portion of the $600 million committed since late 2011 goes directly to fight terrorism -- about $250 million, according to State Department officials. The rest goes towards "helping to strengthen governance and institutions on which Yemen's long-term progress depends," as then-White House counterterrorism czar (and unofficial envoy to Yemen) John Brennan explained last year. That includes cash to "empower women," "combat corruption," and provide "food vouchers, safe drinking water, and basic health services," Brennan added.

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