Yemen Burns to Al-Qaeda’s Delight

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By Joshua Jacobs

May 26, 2011

For the fifth straight day heavy fighting gripped Yemen’s capital of Sana’a as fighters loyal to the head of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation Sheik Sadiq al-Ahmar battled security forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The fighting began on Sunday when Saleh refused for the final time the Gulf Cooperation Council’s deal that would have led to his resignation after 33 years in power. Instead he declared that no foreign influence would force him from office, and when street fighting broke out he labeled al-Ahmar a renegade against the state and attacked his compound. This caused a surge of violence as tribal forces immediately counter-attacked seizing government ministry buildings, cutting off the airport, and expanding the fight to the suburbs of Sana’a. Yet in the midst of the carnage Saleh has repeatedly told the press that he is fearful over the prospects of a civil war breaking out in Yemen if he steps down and the inroads Al-Qaeda would make if he were to leave.

It would be comical if the situation weren’t so grave. Saleh is of course right in some respects but only in the way a self-fulfilling prophet is right. The country is spiraling towards civil war but only because Saleh refuses to leave and is instigating violence, consequently as the country edges towards civil war Al-Qaeda gains the opportunity to thrive. But no one has ever said that Saleh lacks cunning and he is pulling plays straight from the Gaddafi playbook. By creating more instability, by instigating violence, and by raising the profile of Al-Qaeda he is making himself seem indispensable to the stability of Yemen. Saleh has even begun to claim just as Gaddafi had that the protesters “have been infiltrated by Al-Qaeda” in the hopes of arousing Western sympathy. The reality of the matter is that not only will Saleh likely lose this battle for power, but that Al-Qaeda is waiting in the wings and watching with glee as he burns Yemen down around him.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been ranked by US intelligence and defense officials as “the most significant threat facing the US homeland”. AQAP was responsible for the failed Christmas Day bombing over Detroit, and the 2010 plot to mail package bombs to targets in the United States, as well as a host of other interdicted attacks. Earlier this month on May 5th in the US launched drone strikes in an attempt to killed AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The attempt failed and Awlaki survived, but it serves as a fitting reminder of the danger posed by AQAP and the seriousness that the US takes the threat. It is thus alarming that there are already signs that Al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the crisis in Yemen. The American and British embassies have withdrawn most of their staff from Sana’a after reliable intelligence was received that an attack from Al-Qaeda was imminent. Rumors are swirling that Al-Qaeda affiliates have been exploiting the lull in security to infiltrate the city and plan for attacks. Whether or not this is true it is a fact that Al-Qaeda only stands to gain from a Yemen engulfed by civil war. In a flash they will find their ability to move, recruit, and stage attacks dramatically improved. Unhindered by Yemenis security forces or their tribal allies a situation akin to Waziristan could easily develop, at least in the short term.

While the security implications are clear the US and the West must resist the temptation to forgive Saleh his transgressions in the hopes of averting a meltdown. A civil war is not coming because of a vacuum of power and of Al-Qaeda influence; it is coming because Saleh will not leave.

The only solution acceptable to the opposition is his ouster, anything else will result in renewed violence. Even if somehow Saleh manages to win the power struggle it will only result in prolonged instability making the ground more fertile for Al-Qaeda. The national security of the US and the stability of the region are bound up in the fate of Yemen, and Al-Qaeda is intimately aware of this. Thus, it is imperative that the Obama administration use every feasible means to leverage Saleh from power before the civil war can escalate into real anarchy and chaos. Only this can prevent an upswing for Al-Qaeda. The only thing that seems certain is that as gunfire and explosions rock Yemen, AQAP leaders are going to sleep with a smile on their faces.

Joshua Jacobs is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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