Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa
Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda. It was also the site of the attack on the US destroyer USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 sailors in the port of Aden. After a brief respite and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a new campaign of attacks was launched. In 2006, 23 Islamist militants including some convicted of involvement in the USS Cole attack escaped from a prison in Aden, an escape blamed on either security lapses or complicity. That same year, simultaneous attacks targeted oil and gas facilities, foreign residents and tourists. Militants have also repeatedly carried out attacks on the US embassy in 2008 in the capital, Sana’a. It has been difficult to determine the responsibility for all these attacks because Yemen is facing various security challenges.
First, Yemen faces an insurrection by the so-called Houthi rebels in the mountainous north after a 2007 deal was reached but never implemented. The central government has little control in the north and Saudi Arabia which shares a porous 1,500-kilometer border with Yemen has recently stepped up its attacks, motivated largely by the fear that a Houthi military success may revitalize Al Qaeda. Second, in the south which was a British Protectorate until 1967, a secessionist movement has intensified its opposition to the central government. The grievances of the southern separatists, often expressed by the use of grenade attacks and bomb attacks, are not always easily distinguishable from Al Qaeda’s activities in mostly the central parts of Yemen.
A large number of Al Qaeda operatives moved to Yemen when operating conditions in Iraq and Saudi Arabia became less favourable. The Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, known by the name of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), came into being in 2007. AQAP lacks an organized structure and does not maintain a clear chain of command. Instead, it mainly consists of individuals who have traveled to Afghanistan and were linked to the core group of Al Qaeda only through a common experience. It lacks control over its members who typically operate in independent small cells. Despite the fact that AQAP allegedly operates in different parts of Yemen, the size of its membership remains modest. It is estimated to fluctuate between 100 and 150 active members in total. AQAP is led since 2007 by Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni who travelled in the late 1990s to Afghanistan where he supposedly fought with bin Laden. He also said to have participated in the battle of Tora Bora.
Yemen’s security challenges were clearly neglected by the US because of a fixation on Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the 23-year old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who attempted to detonate a bomb on an aircraft en route from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009 had allegedly been inspired and trained by AQAP has catapulted Yemen once again onto the headlines of newspapers. Indeed, Yemen has reemerged as a strategically important base for Al Qaeda to train its operatives, facilitate their movement and plan as well as undertake attacks. The Detroit attack infused an anxiety in the US far out of proportion to the actual threat. It also prompted CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus who oversees the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to immediately meet with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. General Petraeus announced that the US would double its security assistance package to 150 million US $, expanding its training and equipping of the military, the security services and the Ministry of Interior’s counterterrorism units.
By all appearances, the US is gradually engaged in a new front against Al Qaeda and its regional franchises in Yemen and Somalia. The wisdom of such a policy carries serious risks and can be questioned on two levels. First, the US must accept that as long as it views Yemen primarily through the prism of security, Saleh will deliberately play on its anxiety and will ask for disproportionate military support to pursue his own internal interests. An expanded US military intervention will only fuel anti-US sentiments and drive many politically conscious Yemenis into AQAP. And, more seriously, the heavy handed counterterrorism operations of Yemen’s security forces are likely to expand AQAP’s esteem among Yemenis to the point that, paradoxically, AQAP becomes a significant threat and really moves into Al Qaeda’s orbit.
The main reason for Yemen’s insecurity is the fact that the primary concern of President Saleh over several years appears to be his own survival. He took power in 1978 and has repositioned himself as a reliable ally in the global war on terrorism which is still the cornerstone of US foreign policy. In Saleh’s view, Al Qaeda does not pose a menace as dangerous as the more ominous rebellion in the north or as the threat of secession in the south. In other words, Saleh and his military-intelligence establishment in which there are still many Al Qaeda sympathizers have simply not arrived at the conclusion that fighting AQAP is critical to their survival. Thus, Saleh lacks the resolve to effectively control Al Qaeda’s deeper currents and activities in Yemen. He had actually initiated a policy of Islamization in order to contain the Soviet-supported south until it unified with the north in 1990. This practice of co-opting Islamists continued during the 1994 civil war when the south momentarily seceded and the government impudently made use of Islamists who returned from the Afghanistan war.
What fuels Yemen’s rebellions is the perception among many Yemenis of their deliberate marginalization by Saleh’s repressive government which has monopolized political and economic power. Faced with endemic poverty, the degradation of livelihood sources, the inequitable distribution of revenues, widespread corruption and infrastructure left to decline, many Yemenis have reverted to violent tactics and rebellion which are difficult to repress completely. Finally, Yemen’s volatile security situation is further aggravated by the millions of weapons in circulation.