What You Should Know About Yemen

Corinne Graff
Corinne Graff Former Brookings Expert, Senior Policy Scholar - United States Institute of Peace

January 8, 2010

The media frenzy over who’s to blame for allowing a bomber to hop on a flight with explosives sewn into his underwear isn’t surprising. But it is distracting us from a much bigger question: What’s the deal with Yemen?

The Christmas bomber—like the Fort Hood shooter before him—had links to militants there. Why, after spending billions of dollars on our “war on terror,” is Al Qaeda still threatening the United States from safe havens in Yemen?

It’s not that we have ignored the country. Immediately after 9/11, the Bush Administration worked closely with Yemen on counterterrorism, yielding real results. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih arrested scores of suspected terrorists, providing actionable intelligence to the United States.

We reciprocated by dispatching equipment and special operations units to support Yemeni forces. An unmanned CIA aircraft blew up a car in late 2002, killing suspected Al Qaeda operative and U.S.S. Cole attack mastermind Abu Ali al-Harithi. Terrorist activity subsided. Yemen was heralded by many in Washington as a success story in the global struggle against violent extremism. Check please.

Sadly, those gains were short-lived. The reemergence of Al Qaeda in Yemen, which began in 2006, makes it patently clear that a strategy based only on the killing of militants is neither effective nor sustainable. But what can we do differently?

A Failing State

Yemen is a failing state. That term is used so often to describe places like Somalia and Afghanistan that it makes one’s eyes glaze over, but it stands for an important idea. President Bush and his administration ignored the consequences of state failure, and this blind spot has cost us dearly.

Consider Yemen’s predicament. There is steep population growth. The country, located in the Arabian Desert, is running out of water (the groundwater source that supplies the capital of Sana and its 2 million inhabitants will be exhausted within 20 years). Ninety percent of the wheat and rice Yemen consumes is imported. Oil revenues finance the cost, but production is dwindling. Food shortages are dire, and climate change is sure to accelerate the water and food crises. Lastly, Yemen has one of the highest poverty rates in the world and 35 percent unemployment.

Then there’s violence. A protracted conflict in Northern Yemen pits minority-Shiite rebels against the Sunni-dominated central government, leading Yemeni President Salih to recruit former Sunni jihadists to bolster his security forces. Militants reportedly staff the government bureaucracy, while shortages of equipment, training, and good intelligence hamper counterterrorism efforts. Outside the capital, militants have a free hand to use Yemeni territory as a launching pad for international attacks.

Social services are no better. The government spends a meager $11 per person on health, compared with $7,000 per capita in America. The very tribal leaders on whom the regime relies for its survival are willing to court extremists. As one tribal leader reports, “we don’t hate our country. We hate our government. It doesn’t take care of us.”

Religious institutions have stepped in to fill the void, making real improvements in health and education. But foot-soldiers in the global jihad have been radicalized and recruited in Yemen’s Islamic schools and mosques. It’s not just the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas bomber. It’s also John Walker Lindh—better known as the “American Taliban”—and Osama bin Laden’s former driver, a Yemeni who confessed that “working as a driver in bin Laden’s motor pool paid better than driving a minibus.”

It’s Not Working

United States policy has yet to adapt to the realities of fighting extremism in a failing state. Since 2000, we have been providing short-term security assistance to help intercept individual terrorists in Yemen. We have launched controversial aerial bombings. We promised to increase foreign assistance, only to withdraw it later. The more the government teeters on the brink, the more we demand, as though articulating an unrealistic desire will deliver a result.

This is not smart strategy. Yemen bears its share of the blame for the threats that are developing within its borders, but that will provide precious little comfort if it becomes a factory for violent extremism. If we want to take Al Qaeda down and keep them down, we need to build state capacity in Yemen through sustained economic assistance and good governance programs. They’re ambitious objectives, especially in a failing state. But if the underwear bomber taught us anything, it’s that the stakes warrant the effort.