Jan 06 2010
“From a pound of talk, an ounce of understanding” – Yemeni Proverb
Security Failure and Luck
Following the Christmas day attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to take down Delta Air flight 253 on approach to Detroit, the Obama administration has been meeting with top security and intelligence members to figure out what went wrong in the process. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen who received bomb making material and training in Yemen, was unsuccessful in what would have been a disastrous act of terror when the powder/liquid mixture he was carrying in his underpants failed to ignite. A Christmas miracle, to be sure, but a complete breakdown in screening procedures and common sense. The flight originated in Amsterdam and Abdulmutallab carried no luggage and bought a one way ticket in cash. President Obama said that the U.S. “Failed to connect the dots” and that “We dodged a bullet but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked and that is not acceptable.” The incident, in addition to increasing airline precautions and re-sparking the debate over full body scans and profiling, has also caused the world to take a close look at Yemen, where Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula reportedly provided the training for the mission and are planning more attacks. Nearly a decade after the attack on the USS Cole which took the lives of 17 U.S. sailors, a look at the current situation in Yemen shows a deeply troubled nation and one that has the potential to become the next major focus in the war on terror.
Modern Yemen’s Violent History
Although it is one of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen is in an extremely important geographical location when it comes to shipping lanes and oil exports.
The nation we know of as Yemen has only existed in its current state since 1990, when North Yemen, which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire until 1918 and became a republic in 1962, formally merged with South Yemen, which had until 1967 been occupied by Great Britain. North Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh became president of the nation and remains in power today, following two democratic elections. The unification process has not been a peaceful one, however. The nation fought its first civil war in 1994 between the northern and southern factions, with the south receiving significant support from Saudi Arabia. The south seceded from the country and formed the Democratic Republic of Yemen, but failed to gain international recognition and the fighting dissipated.
Yemen’s Battle with Militants
Internal relations were shaky until 2004 when the second civil war broke out. This time, Yemeni government forces were fighting a minority Shiite rebel movement called the Houthis, named after their leader Hussein Al Houthi, in northern Yemen. The war started when the government attempted to arrest Al Houthi, a leader of the Shiite sect (actually he is a member of an offshoot of the Shiite sect called Zaidi). This battle continues to rage today, with the Houthis dug in to mountain positions and occasionally striking out against the government. On top of the rebel fighting, a southern secessionist movement has been a constant problem for the government, although the issue has died down some recently due to the northern war. During this time, Al-Qaeda has supported the Houthis and sent hundreds, if not thousands, of their militants into the region. With the nation on the verge of collapse (unemployment is over 40% and popular support for the central government is eroding), the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is finding it increasingly difficult to fight an insurgency and maintain order. This has led to several nations getting involved through various channels, including military action. This threatens to turn an internal war into a regional one.
Saudi Arabia has been the nation most directly affected by the second Yemeni civil war. In August of 2009, Muhammad bin Nayef, a member of the Saudi royal family and ironically the country’s top counter-terrorism official, was injured in a suicide bombing attributed to a member of the Houthi movement. On November 3rd, Houthi rebels briefly captured two villages in Saudi territory. The Saudi response has been strong, with numerous air strikes and ground operations taking aim at the Houthis in support of the central government and out of fear of further incursions or attacks. The Saudi attacks have been starkly criticized by Iran, whose leaders have spoken out feverishly against the Saudi involvement. Iran has been accused of providing tactical and military assistance to the Houthis, raising the tensions across the region. With a growing U.S. involvement in the war, these tensions will only continue to rise. Iran’s objection to Saudi actions are based on their disgust of Muslims spilling the blood of other Muslims, in an obvious attempt to make Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Arab world reduced as Iran continues in its efforts to become the regional superpower.
The majority Sunni Saudi Arabia is in a difficult position. They face internal strife from elements of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are opposed to the royal family’s grip on power, and have seen in the past decade a rise in Iranian influence in the region, from Shiite majority Iraq and Iran’s sponsorship of Hizbollah in Syria and Lebanon. A Shiite state to its south would not bode well for the Kingdom.
American Military Actions
On December 17th and again on the 24th, cruise missiles struck Al-Qaeda bases in rebel provinces and caused considerable loss of life to the militants (as well as civilians, according to Yemeni sources). Admiral Mike Mullen praised the strikes but did not say that the U.S. had any active role in the operation. After the Christmas day attempted terrorist attack, President Obama stated that “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred”, and that Al Qaeda in Yemen “will be held to account”. This will mean more support for the Yemeni government in the form of more than doubling the amount of aid sent to the nation to use to fight terror (a figure that could run as high as $150 million), continued drone air attacks, deeper intelligence cooperation and special forces operations. The New York Times ran a story on December 27th detailing America’s expansion of the war on terror to Yemen:
A year ago, the Central Intelligence Agency sent several of its top field operatives with counterterrorism experience to the country, according a former top agency official. At the same time, some of the most secretive Special Operations commandos have begun training Yemeni security forces in counterterrorism tactics, senior military officers said.
President Obama laid out his intentions on December 28th:
“We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us, whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the US homeland,” Mr Obama said.
As the center of operations for Al-Qaeda shifts to Yemen, we can expect more U.S. involvement in overt and covert operations to help the government there rid the scourge of terrorists in the strategic nation.
Yemen has all of the ingredients and hallmarks of a growing terrorist safe haven. An active rebellion against a weak central authority, a poor population base to draw in new recruits and access to some of the most critical shipping lanes in the world. The potential for another terrorist attack originating from Yemen is extremely high, and as the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the Christmas airline plot have demonstrated, Americans are the prime target. While the Houthi movement and Al-Qaeda may have differing immediate objectives, their cooperation represents a clear and present danger to American interests. With our overstretched military engaged in multiple locations around the world fighting Muslim terrorists, the importance of regional engagement by Yemen’s Arab neighbors has never been more pressing. If the government falls, the safe haven will expand and become much like Afghanistan in the late ’90’s. That can not be allowed to happen.
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