Al-Qaeda and Yemen Making the Arabian Peninsula a More Dangerous Neighborhood
An attempt to deliver explosives, disguised by a copier toner cartridge, by aircraft - for the purposes of targeting the addressees (two synagogues in the Chicago area) or to cause a mid-air explosion - recalls a similar episode last Christmas. Late 2009, a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab intended to down Delta Airlines flight 253 flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. The episodes have once again placed Yemen and the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the front pages of newspapers around the world. While the attempts have failed given the fast reaction of passengers and the crew in the Christmas plot, and a thorough check by customs officials at London Heathrow is the ‘toner’ bomb case, the impact has been important in that visibility of AQAP has increased considerably as a result. Although no one was harmed, Al-Qaeda managed a good media coup whether it planned it or not.
The would be terrorist has also prompted a lot of attention on Yemen, its poverty, mismanagement and its potential to become a new haven for international terrorism in a manner similar to Afghanistan or even Somalia. In 2009, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) launched last July a suicide-bombing attempt to kill the Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef. Abdulmutallab said he obtained the explosive device and training in Yemen; inevitably, the conclusion is that the terrorist threat from Yemen is growing.
The United States and United Kingdom are very concerned by the Yemen threat; they want to prevent Yemen from becoming another Afghanistan. To their advantage is the Yemeni government that has positioned itself as a willing ally from the very start. So far, the US and UK have sent military trainers to Yemen to improve the country’s police and security forces in counter-terrorism tactics, creating a 200 man strong anti-terrorism unit. Nevertheless, while the government may need Western help in confronting the threat of the militants, western ‘consultants’ are a problem; the foreign presence risks angering locals. The issue is delicate and foreign advisors must be seen as little as possible. Even if ‘low-key’, U.S. military involvement in Yemen has raised a serious debate in the country; should the Obama administration raise the stakes and offer to send some troops or security staff to Yemen it would raise rather than lower the potential for terrorism.
The US says that it does not participate, for now, in actual military operations, limiting itself to supplying intelligence and “firepower” to the Yemeni government. President Obama assured that the USA “has no intention” of becoming militarily involved in Yemen. Yemeni officials also stressed that the United States had not launched any attack in Yemen against ‘Al Qaeda’ bases. However, some of the attacks appear to have involved US unmanned drone aircraft, but the Yemeni government has vehemently denied this, because if true it could raise some sensitive issues. Some opposition party members have already tried to embarrass the government by spreading rumors that attacks against militants last December were conducted by the US directly.
Foreign Intervention Could Worsen Yemen's Already Fragile Situation:
The issue of US military involvement is very delicate because Yemenis, according to polls, have shown some of the highest rates of ‘anti-Americanism’ in the Arab world. Islamic scholars and imams have issued a statement, not a fatwa (but close) vehemently opposing any foreign intervention in Yemen’s military or political affairs, adding that: “If Yemeni foreign policy allows any foreign military or security interference, Islam permits citizens to call jihad to expel its attackers.” The government, therefore, fears a popular backlash, which would add to the problem it already faces dealing with two civil wars. Foreign intervention could prompt some people to support the militants against the ’invader’, which would then truly risk creating another Afghanistan, one much closer to the world’s largest oil producer.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world; it has some oil, but reserves are dwindling and there is no investment in new exploration because of the high security risks. The government does not have an economic plan to deal with the ‘post-oil’ future. Saudi Arabia is understandably concerned. Yemen has shown to have immediate security concerns that left unmitigated have the potential to create a situation of chronic instability and militancy. Saudi Arabia is not only concerned by the growing risk of terrorism from Yemen, it is also worried by the spillover effects of the Shiite, specifically the Zaidi Shiite rebellion in northern Yemen. After suffering intense bombardment last December, the Zaidi rebels have tried to come to an agreement with the Saudi backed Yemeni government.
The Yemeni Shiite Revolt:
Meanwhile, having incurred heavy bombardments, the government of Yemen has denied the Zaidi rebels request for an unconditional ceasefire. The government is concerned that the Zaidis have not made an explicit reference to refusing to attack Saudi Arabia, which is also home to a Zaidi Shiite community in the areas bordering Yemen. The Yemeni army has continued its attacks in the north; Saudi Arabia became very involved in the conflict last November, though the Zaidi rebellion began in 2004 and has so far left thousands dead and driven 200,000 people to abandon their homes.
Worldwide concern for the situation in Yemen, which is now included in the same league as Afghanistan or Pakistan, has prompted the organization of a Conference for Yemen in London. The conference appears to be focused on security issues and ‘al-Qaeda’, but it would be more effective if it paid more attention to the social and economic problems facing Yemen itself. Ironically, one of the Yemeni social phenomena that is raising concerns in Saudi Arabia is the spread of Wahhabi or salafist interpretations of Islam among Yemeni youth – from Saudi Arabia.
Yemen’s main problems are its civil war in the north and the secession in the South. The Yemeni government has not been able to find adequate solutions to either; and this is where perhaps Saudi Arabia, ever the diplomatic broker, and western governments should focus their attention. The United States continues to place too much attention on controlling the situation militarily; in this sense, the Yemeni government could try to take advantage of the financial and military aid that Saudi Arabia and the US will inevitably offer, and divert it to confronting the very rebellions, which it should try to resolve politically instead.
Moreover, while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have encouraged Yemen militarily, they continue to refute it as a member. Yemen’s population, the largest and fastest growing in the Arabian Peninsula, would give it influence in the GCC, and perhaps that is a reason to exclude it in the logic of the princedoms that dominate the organization. Saudi Arabia, which has been drawn into the Houthi/Zaidi rebellion in northern Yemen, should encourage the GCC to include Yemen and perhaps hire more Yemenis, since the GCC relies on expatriate workers. Choosing a purely military approach will only exacerbate the risks of Yemen becoming yet another failed state, one bordering the world’s largest oil supplies.
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