Fighting Al Qaeda in Yemen is an Important Battle of a Broader War

Nigerian Omar al Farooq Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253 near Detroit has suddenly brought into the limelight another important link in the global terrorist chain. That of ill-governed Yemen. The country has been on the Obama administration’s radar since Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) emerged as a major threat. The fact that Yemen is now at the forefront of the US counter-terrorism effort does not, however, mean the fight is going to be easy. This country has always been one of the world’s least governed spaces with problems made worse, by several decades of bad US-Yemeni relations that turned many Yemenis against America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda has long been active in Yemen, the original home land of Osama bin Laden’s family; one of its first major terror attacks was conducted in Aden in 2000 when an Al Qaeda cell nearly sank the USS Cole. A year ago Al Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged after the Saudi branch had been effectively repressed by the Saudi authorities under the leadership of Deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayif. The new AQAP showed its claws when it almost assassinated the Prince last August using a suicide bomber who passed through at least two airports on the way to his attempt on Nayif, wearing an explosive-packed underwear like the Nigerian on NW 253.

The same bomb makers who produced that device probably made the bomb that Abdulmutallab used on flight 253. In claiming credit for the Detroit attack, AQAP highlighted how they had built a bomb that “all the advanced, new machines and technologies and the security boundaries of the world’s airports” had failed to detect. They praised their “mujahedin brothers in the manufacturing sector” for building such a “highly advanced device” and promised more such attacks will follow.

Another Yemeni connection to come to light in recent days is Yemeni-American cleric Shaykh Anwar al-Awlaki who was in contact with US Army Major Nidal Hassan who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas on November 5, 2009. In an interview with al Jazeera released on December 23rd, Awlaki said he had encouraged Nidal to kill his fellow soldiers because they were preparing to go to Afghanistan and were part of the Zionist-Crusader alliance that Al Qaeda says it is fighting.

Yemen’s emergence as a terrorist trouble-spot is relatively new but the country has always been a lawless land. Nominally part of the Ottoman Empire from the 1530s, Yemen gained independence at the end of the First World War when the Ottoman Turks collapsed. After 1918, the northern part of the country was ruled by an almost medieval regime dominated by the minority Zaydi Shia (about 45% of the population), a uniquely Yemeni Shia movement that is independent of the larger, mainstream Shia sect that runs Iran.   It lost a border war with Saudi Arabia in the 1920s that has left Yemenis angry towards Riyadh ever since. In 1962 a pro-Egyptian coup led to a long civil war and military dictators have ruled ever since. Recently some Zaydi tribes called Houthis have revolted again.  

The southern part of Yemen became a British colony in the 1830s. Actually the British only wanted the port of Aden as a transit stop on the sail to India. The British were ousted by a Moscow backed communist guerilla war in 1968. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the abandoned and broke communist south had no choice but to merge with the north. The hero of unification was President Ali Abdallah Saleh who survived a Saudi backed southern rebellion in 1994 and has now been in office 31 years. The south still seeks to break away. Aden is a hotbed of secessionism.

The Saleh government has ruled by divide and accommodate. Saleh is himself a Zaydi Shia but also a firm Arab nationalist. He backed Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the first gulf war in 1990. In response, the Saudis expelled a million Yemeni expatriate workers from the Kingdom and backed the anti-Saleh southern insurrection in 1994. Saleh has allowed parliamentary elections but the regime is in fact a police state, just a weak one.

The Saleh government’s battle against Al Qaeda illustrates its weaknesses. Again and again Al Qaeda operatives have been captured by the government only to escape from prison. The current head of AQAP, Nasir al-Wahishi, broke out of the nation’s number one prison in 2006 along with thirty other terrorists. His number two, Said al-Shihri, is a Saudi released by the Bush administration from Guantanamo to the Kingdom.   AQAP’s strongholds are mostly in the south in the remote Sunni tribal provinces that have remained ungoverned for decades.

US-Yemeni relations have never really recovered from the 1990 gulf war differences. All aid was cut off in 1991 and only slowly resumed. After Al Qaeda blew up the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, the investigation of the attack only further embittered both sides as each claimed the other was holding back key information. The Bush and Obama administrations have rightly refused to send Yemeni detainees back from Guantanamo given the history of prison breaks in the last decade. Yemenis rightly believe the US treats them like a poor cousin of their traditional Saudi enemy.

But there is no ‘made in America’ answer to AQAP. Drones can kill key operatives if the US has good intelligence on where they are. But that primarily comes from the Yemenis. Controlling lawless spaces where Al Qaeda thrives must be a Yemeni mission. The US can and should help with military and economic assistance but the Yemenis have to buy into the job. Despite years of bad relations between Riyadh and Sana, the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs have to provide the economic aid and jobs that are the only long term solution to salvaging the anemic economy. Thankfully they seem to be recognizing a failed Yemen will destabilize the entire Arabian Peninsula.

The Obama administration has offered Saleh additional military assistance and has encouraged the government to strike hard at Al Qaeda hideouts in the last few weeks. The attacks have killed some AQAP leaders but it is unclear exactly how serious a blow these have inflicted on the group. AQAP has vowed revenge for the strikes which it blames on an alliance of America, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Saleh government.   This promises to be a long and difficult fight.

While fighting AQAP, the US should keep in mind that the organization still takes its strategic guidance and direction from the Al Qaeda core leadership in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The merger between the Yemeni and Saudi factions of AQ that created AQAP last January was directed by Osama bin Laden. Yemen is a vital battlefield in the war against Al Qaeda but the epicenter is still in Pakistan. The American challenge is to try to strengthen governance in three of the most ungoverned spaces in the world, that will neither be cheap nor fast but the alternative is to live with a deadly threat.