Our Two-Faced Friends in Sanaa

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

January 5, 2010

The counterterrorism spotlight is now on Yemen, and policymakers are adding the remote Arabian nation to the list of Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and other weak or failing states that are host to al-Qaida-linked jihadists. But Yemen’s problem is not just weakness. The regime in Sanaa fights al-Qaida and like-minded jihadists, but it also knowingly tolerates and aids them—a situation the United States faced in Saudi Arabia before 2003 and currently faces in Pakistan.

Yemen’s stability, always uncertain, is even more precarious today. Oil revenue is declining as Yemen’s reserves dry up. As a result, the regime has less money to pay supporters and buy off opponents (and, oh yes, develop the country, never a high priority). Even more ominous, civil strife is bubbling over within Yemen. The “Houthi” rebellion pits Zaydi Shiites in the northwestern part of the country near the Saudi border against the government. The Zaydis are a Shiite community living in a Sunni-majority nation, but their beliefs and traditions differ from the better-known school of Shiism practiced in Iran. Although the community is religiously distinct, a desire for tribal autonomy is at the heart of the rebellion. Despite the regime’s claims to the contrary, I have not seen a credible account that shows the rebellion has significant Iranian backing (admittedly, however, there has been very little reporting on this topic). As if that weren’t enough, some disgruntled southerners are in revolt, bitter at their steady loss of power since North Yemen and South Yemen unified in 1990, and also at their loss in the 1994 civil war.

Yemen’s third problem—the most significant for the United States—is that Sunni jihadists tied to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have made a home in the country. (AQAP claims credit for the failed Christmas Day attempt to bomb an airliner heading for Detroit.) AQAP draws on a history of al-Qaida violence in Yemen—in October 2000, for example, the group killed 17 American sailors in an attack on the warship USS Cole. In recent years, AQAP has mounted several other attacks against Western targets in Yemen, it has tried to kill a top Saudi official, and it has stepped up attacks on agents of the Yemeni regime.

The various rebel groups do not work together, and their agendas are not harmonious, but they weaken the state and stretch Yemen’s military forces.

If the problem were government weakness, the solution would be simple: Strengthen the regime with aid, training, money, and other assistance. As always in the Middle East, however, the reality is more complex.

At times, President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime kills or arrests jihadists, and it can use our help with these efforts, but before we leap, we should also recognize the other methods he has used to manage them. Princeton’s Gregory Johnsen described past relations as “a tacit non-aggression pact.” Under this approach, jihadists fight the United States or regional foes such as Saudi Arabia with little interference from the government, as long as they leave the regime alone. Indeed, some jihadists whom the government supposedly “re-educated” to renounce terrorism later traveled to Iraq to fight U.S. forces there. Murad Abdual Wahed, a Yemeni political analyst, declared, “Yemen is like a bus station—we stop some terrorists, and we send others on to fight elsewhere. We appease our partners in the West, but we are not really helping.”

Saleh tolerates these jihadists because he exploits and fears them. The government has used the Shiite-hating Sunni jihadists to fight the Houthis in the north. It used the same approach in the early 1990s when it faced a civil war from southern socialists. Moreover, many of the jihadists are linked to domestic political groups with strong support, such as the Islah party, an Islamist and tribal organization that opposes the government but sometimes cooperates with it. Yemen’s leaders find it best to try to tolerate and divert the jihadists rather than confront them directly. This approach is a time-honored tactic for weak leaders: Because they cannot crush foes, they try to play them off one another.

So, Washington must recognize that while Sanaa may consider AQAP a danger, it also sees it as less of a menace than threats like the Houthis, and at times it can even be an ally. When the United States tries to build up the Yemeni army and security services to take on AQAP, the equipment, money, and skills they gain will sometimes be used to fight other regime enemies. Because AQAP is now targeting the Yemeni state, Sanaa will want to weaken the group, but the government will still try to exploit the jihadists to serve its own purposes. Yemen will do just enough to satisfy the United States and keep the money and aid coming, but no more.

To turn the government more decisively against the jihadists, the United States must develop a regional strategy, working particularly closely (albeit discreetly) with Saudi Arabia. Saudi aid to Yemen dwarfs the U.S. contribution: $2 billion versus $150 million, according to the New York Times. Saudi Arabia has always felt a proprietary interest in the tribes in the northwest, particularly since some of them straddle the Yemen-Saudi border. Drugs and weapons enter the kingdom from Yemen, and reports of Iranian interference also scare the Tehran-phobic Saudis. The Saudis have always felt that they should be the dominant power in Yemen, and for decades they have meddled in the country’s domestic politics. But Saudi involvement offers few military benefits to the regime and risks discrediting it—Yemenis agree on very little, but there is a general resentment of Saudi interference. If Washington works at cross-purposes with Riyadh, its efforts will fail.

At the same time, Washington needs to keep its unilateral options open, because it cannot rely on the Yemeni government. Drone strikes, such as those the United States conducts in parts of Pakistan and reportedly conducted in Yemen in December 2009, need to be continued.

But the paucity of options highlights the limits of U.S. influence in Yemen. Drone strikes may kill some key jihadists and keep others off balance, but they will not kill enough to stop Yemen from being a major hub for al-Qaida. Turning Yemen into an accountable, functioning state is the work of many years and requires the Yemeni government to take the lead. So far, President Saleh prefers to buy off, threaten, or divide opponents in order to increase his family’s power rather than to build institutions. In fighting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Washington must play a bad hand well, a difficult task in the best of circumstances. Indeed, even if the United States plays its cards well, conditions in Yemen could easily worsen, and Yemen’s role as a staging ground for future terrorist attacks on the United States and its allies is likely to expand.