international analysis and commentary

The al Qaeda-Yemen connection and the West’s policy dilemmas

It is now official. President Obama said that the alleged Christmas Day airline bomber acted under orders from an al Qaeda branch in Yemen, which “trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”

Vowing to hold accountable all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas, Obama sent a letter to his Yemeni counterpart, Ali Abdullah Saleh, delivered by Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, in which he pledged to double the $70 million in counterterrorism aid to the poverty-stricken country in 2010.

With the additional increase in security assistance, Yemen now tops Pakistan which receives about $112 million, a clear indication of the growing threat of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (known as AQAP, Yemen-based) in US eyes.

American strategy is driven by assumptions that do not fully recognize the complexity and gravity of the situation in Yemen. The first premise is that with increased US security assistance, the Yemen government will take the fight to al Qaeda and uproot it. Secondly, US officials assume that confronting al Qaeda requires mainly counterterrorism measures.

The roots of the problem
What is alarming about the resurgence of this al Qaeda branch is its linkage to Yemen’s deepening social and political crises and failing state institutions. In the last three years against all odds the al Qaeda branch has revived the central organization’s declining fortune in the Arabian Peninsula and emerged as a potentially potent force. AQAP currently numbers between 100 and 300 core operatives, as many as those in Pakistan, though they are younger and lack the operational skills and sophistication of their Pakistani cohorts. Most are rookies with little combat experience unlike the previous Afghanistan generation.

The structure and composition of the Yemen branch appear to have changed because of the merger with militant elements from Saudi Arabia last January, forming AQAP and revitalizing the jihadist network there. Some fighters had returned from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and have supplied military training and ideological motivation and leadership.

In 2007 I interviewed several hardened Yemeni and Saudi returnees from Iraq who made it clear that they would target America and Britain if the US and UK troops did not withdraw from Muslims lands. These hardliners were neither bluffing nor making empty threats. There are also some signs of cross-fertilization between AQAP and Somalia’s al-Shabab, an al Qaeda like-minded group fighting for control of the war-torn country.

That is not the whole the story, however. The recent revival of the al Qaeda branch in Yemen is a product of a structural socioeconomic crisis and political divisions and fault lines that have pushed the country to the brink of all-out war.

Today Yemen is a fragile state with failing institutions and a collapsed economy. Forty percent of the country’s 23 million people are unemployed. More than a third of the population is undernourished and almost 50% live in absolute poverty. Yemen, the poorest Arab country, has one of the lowest water per capita availability rates in the world, as well as one of the highest fertility rates – 7.1 %. A huge youth explosion (60 % of the population is under the age of 20) faces a grim future and radicalization.

With every visit to this stunningly beautiful country, I observe a deteriorating security situation and declining social conditions. It is now common to see many women of all ages clad in black from head to toe begging on the streets of major cities, an alarming sign of social breakdown in an ultra-conservative Muslim society where women do not appear in public.

The sound of Soviet-made fighter jets often shatter the peace of the early morning hours on their way to bomb Houthi (Shia) rebels in the Sada’adah province and the Harf Sufian district of the Amran province, a mini-civil war in the north that has raged on and off for four years and has claimed more than a thousand lives, most of whom are civilians.

A secessionist movement in the south has gained momentum, with a sizable segment of southern public opinion demanding a divorce from the forced union imposed by the north in the early 1990s. Other tribes in the eastern provinces in Marib, al-Jawf, Shebwa and Abyan challenge Sanaa’s central authority and provide refuge and backing for al Qaeda.

What the al Qaeda branch has tried to do is to submerge and embed itself in these raging local conflicts and to position itself as the spearhead of opposition and resistance to the Saleh regime. For example, al Qaeda has allied itself with southern separatists in the fight against Sanaa, a radical move because many separatists are socialist and not religiously-inclined.

Ironically, in 1994 President Saleh relied greatly on jihadists and Islamists to subdue the socialist south and unify Yemen.

The al Qaeda-Yemen connection goes back to the foundation of the jihadist organization. Yemen has always had powerful Islamist and jihadist movements. In the 1980s thousands of Yemenis joined the Afghan jihad against occupying Soviet forces and most returned home emboldened and militarized. Unlike their Middle Eastern counterparts, Yemeni returnees were welcomed with open arms by the Saleh regime. In the early 1990s when bin Laden, whose father was born in Yemen, set up al Qaeda in Sudan and then in Afghanistan, he heavily and personally recruited Yemenis whom he trusted. As his ancestral home, bin Laden, a Saudi, often said he has a soft spot in his heart for Yemen because of its people’s religiosity, tribal code of honor and hospitality and because of its harsh mountainous landscape. The Saudi-Yemeni contingent was the largest within the bin Laden organization, as well as in the detention facility at the US Guantanamo Bay.

What to do?
To uproot al Qaeda, US officials appear to overestimate the capacity of the Yemeni government to meet the multiple challenges and threats to its authority and integrity. Its security forces are spread thin trying to put down multiple insurrections and insurgencies in the north, south and eastern provinces. Four years after the outbreak of the Houthi rebellion, the state has failed to resolve it.

More importantly, the government can no longer deliver the social goods and patronage, historically solid underpinnings of the Saleh rule. The country has been badly affected by oil revenues falling closer to consumption levels (Yemen is the smallest oil producer in the Middle East), pervasive corruption and the international financial downturn. After more than three decades in power, President Saleh’s ability to co-opt adversaries and maintain friends has shrunk considerably, plunging Yemen into an uncertain future.

On its own, counterterrorism will most likely fail in expelling al Qaeda from Yemen’s tribal areas and might be counterproductive and trigger a backlash against the Saleh regime and its Western patrons. Of all Middle Easterners, Yemenis voice strong anti-American foreign policy sentiments and take pride in sacrificing blood and treasure in defense of Arab and Muslim causes. Any US policy course that neglects the local context will help al Qaeda sell its narrative to a receptive audience.

What Yemen desperately needs is a political and economic vision that tackles deteriorating security and social conditions and empowers state and society, not just the Saleh regime. This vision cannot be made in the USA. Yemen’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, along with the League of the Arab States, should take the lead in finding solutions to Yemen’s political and tribal divisions and in providing the means to prevent Yemen from becoming a failed state. More than any other country, Saudi Arabia has more to lose from the breakdown of its next door neighbor.

The US and Great Britain should provide leadership and assistance in shepherding the reconstruction process through and ensuring that inclusive governance, transparency and accountability are adhered to. A good start is British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s call for a high-level international meeting this month to discuss ways of combating al Qaeda influence in Yemen. But his proposal should be broadened to examine Yemen’s structural, social and political crisis and fully involve Yemen’s Arab neighbors in the talks.