Yemen’s Chaos Strengthens International Terror

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By Lev Yuriditsky

As the situation in Yemen deteriorates to a potentially full-blown collapse, the threat of a terrorist-run state in the Arabian Peninsula is growing significantly. The country is a hot spot for terrorist groups and the headquarters of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered by the U.S. to be the most dangerous branch of the organization. With a weakened government, and preoccupied and disorganized security forces, Yemen has become prime real estate for terrorist groups in the region. Maintaining stability in Yemen is a priority for the entire world.


United Nations special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Ben Omar underscored the grave situation in Yemen at a July press conference in Sana’a, stating that “Yemen’s political leaders have two options: either to reach an agreement accepted by all… or to face collapse and `Somalization’.” He went on to call the situation “very dangerous,” and that it could become an international threat. It already is.

Towards the end of July, the leader of AQAP, Nasir al Wuhayshi, pledged allegiance to Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri. Wuhayshi vowed to fight until Sharia law is imposed across the globe and that he and the AQAP fighters under his order will “fight the enemies without leniency or surrender until Islam rules.”
Wuhayshi’s pledge of allegiance came just a month after Al Shabaab, the Al Qaeda-linked organization in Somalia gave the same oath. The two groups, separated by the strategic Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab straight, through which millions of barrels of oil and other goods are shipped daily between Asia, Europe and the Americas, make instability in Yemen a tremendous risk to global trade. The groups have cooperated with each other in the past and together can prove to be one of the most deadly terrorist organizations in history. With Al Shabaab’s strong presence in Somalia, all it takes is Al Qaeda strengthening just slightly and the groups will control the horn of Africa, the southwestern peninsula, and the strategic Gulf of Aden.


The alliance between Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda is of special significance to the U.S. Al Shabaab has a proven ability to recruit from the U.S. Somali-American population. During a hearing on Muslim radicalization, chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King discussed Al Shabaab’s “large cadre of American Jihadis” and the groups growing threat in the U.S. He went on to say that AQAP’s resources, such as arms and training (Yemen is the most heavily armed country in the world) with Al Shabaab’s reach can make for a particularly challenging situation.


With the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, many in the U.S. breathed a sigh of relief in thinking that we defeated Al Qaeda; others held their breath, asking “what’s next?” The answer to that question can be found in southern Yemen, especially in the province of Abyan, where AQAP has effectively taken over several towns along with the capital, Zinjibar. Almost immediately after the unrest began in Yemen and the security forces withdrew to the north, Al Qaeda took advantage of their new freedom and rapidly expanded its power. They have been a presence in Yemen for years, but now the country is a secure base for them and a hub for its activities all over the region. Many fear that the strategic port city of Aden will be next. Since the capturing of Abyan, over 100,000 have fled the province, many now living in caves for protection against heavy shelling.


Although not always directly referred to and often having their actions credited to Al Qaeda, AQAP has been responsible for many attacks around the world. Some well known attacks include the U.S. Embassy bombing in Sana’a in 2008, suicide bombings against South Korean delegations in 2009, attempted attacks against airliners on Christmas Day, Carlos Bledsoe opening fire at a military recruitment office in Little Rock, the Fort Hood massacre, among many others. They are extremely aggressive and have even threatened recently to conduct large scale attacks in Saudi Arabia.


The Yemen security forces are strongly divided and are for that reason having an incredibly difficult time defeating Al Qaeda. With the majority of the military remaining in the north under the control of President Saleh’s son Ahmad and the 25th brigade, the main army unit fighting in Abyan is under the control of General Ali Mohsen, who defected to protesters several months ago. The fact that a general who is no longer under the control of the central government is charged with defeating AQAP makes the task all the more difficult.
The 25th brigade faces a severe lack of reinforcement and resources in fighting AQAP and has recruited the help of local tribes in the south. This alliance was very close to a break down after the Yemeni Air Force in an air strike accidentally killed 40 of the loyal tribesmen in the beginning of August. The tribal leaders withdrew their support for two days before reconciling with the military and continuing fighting, but their support is now volatile. The U.S. for its part has also been lending its support through unmanned drone attacks, and has plans to increase their activity in the country. Unfortunately, even with the support of tribes and the U.S., the military has still not been able to recapture any ground from the terrorists.
While some tribes are supporting the military, others are being more hospitable to Al Qaeda. Under the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, American-born cleric and spokesperson for AQAP, the group has been successful in gaining substantial support from various tribes in Yemen, such as Abida in Marib governorate and the Al-Awalik in the Abyan province. According to the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C., Tribal elders colluded with AQAP through sheltering and protecting its members as well as enabling the group to recruit new members to fight the army there. Generally, the tribal philosophy and way of life is at odds with that of Al Qaeda, so there support is out of custom, since AQAP members operate from their home provinces. The support from the tribes is part of a mutual relationship, as the tribes in the south are opposed to the Saleh regime and the U.S. counterterrorism operations in their territory, which they view as disregarding their sovereignty. These tribes thus use AQAP as leverage against the government and as soon as their goal is achieved, it is likely that they will force AQAP to weaken. In the meantime, however, the tribes support for AQAP can allow them to grow to a dangerous level.


Former U.S. Ambassador, Edmund Hull, explains that Al Qaeda has been able to successfully exploit opportunities created by government neglect. For years, AQAP has provided for the neglected, even building schools for them, and in doing so has been able to gather support for their cause. Hull went on to say that innocent casualties of war – family, friends, and neighbors killed in counterterrorism operations, is perhaps the most important in provoking loyalty to Al Qaeda. The group has even lent support to the opposition groups protesting in the Sana’a and Taiz.


In many cases, having a common enemy such as Al Qaeda can act to bring a divided country back together. In Yemen, most believe that the Saleh regime colludes with AQAP. The Embassy in Washington warns that “If President Saleh leaves power, Al Qaeda will surely take over in five Yemeni provinces.” They went on to say that “The opposition should not talk about power transfer and should focus more on fighting terror before it’s too late. They are becoming stronger every day.” True or not, this is something that the Saleh regime would love for people to believe, however most Yemenis believe that Saleh is using the fear of Al Qaeda as a desperate way to hold on to power. This idea is supported by a decade of leniency and cooperation with the group. Opposition figures point to his history of using Islamist militants and Mujahadeen to fight for him as well as several cases where AQAP militants escaped prisons under very suspicious circumstances, such as the recent escape of over 60 militants in June. This is not unlike the 2006 escape of 23 inmates, including those who helped orchestrate the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. Analysts believe that Saleh uses the release of prisoners as a way of gaining leverage with the tribes from which they belong.


In the past several months, nothing has changed for the better and no viable solution has been presented aside from the Gulf Cooperation Council’s deal, which was backed by the U.S. as well. Yemen is on the brink of civil war, humanitarian crisis, and collapse of their economy, which hardly existed even in better times. Fighting is in every direction and the most likely victor if things continue in this way is AQAP. It’s a now or never moment where the U.S. needs to do everything in its power to force Saleh to step down and accept the GCC-brokered deal and replace him with a more acceptable leader, one who can appease the opposition, allow for the reunification of the military, who can then go on to defeat AQAP. There is no other solution, and matters will only get worse if things are allowed to continue.


The U.S., along with many other countries and international organizations, including the GCC has recognized the serious threat of collapse in Yemen. An oddly little-known fact and seldom mentioned in the news is that the U.S. is heavily involved in Yemen and has been for a long time. The Yemen conflict has been pushed under the media rug, which focuses on the fighting in Libya and the riots in Syria, but Yemen is where the U.S. is most actively fighting.


So far, unmanned drones have been surveying the country and striking AQAP strongholds, killing scores of militants. The relationship between the U.S. and Yemen under Saleh’s regime was strongly based on the ostensible counter-terrorism partnership between the two countries, so drones have been in the area for nearly a decade, but only recently have they switched their role from surveillance to actual strikes.


While the U.S. fully understands what is going on in Yemen, they are more hesitant with making demands of Saleh than they are in any of the other countries of the Arab Spring, save for Bahrain. The U.S. immediately supported the ousting of Gaddafi and is placing sanctions on Assad in Syria. Between these three troubled countries, the U.S. policy towards Saleh is the softest. The demands of the U.S. have been limited to asking Saleh to accept the GCC-brokered deal. The U.S. believes that a resolution will only come from within and are thus allowing the conflict to continue unlike their approaches in other countries. More than likely, a resolution will come from within. The resolution will come from an agreement between tribal leaders, those who actually run the country.


 In the meantime, the U.S. is taking advantage of the chaos to fight a long-time enemy. The U.S.’s complicity in Yemen is likely a result from the realization that it is easier to fight an enemy when you know where they are. Since the beginning of the conflicts, AQAP has come out of hiding and they are being met with CIA drones. The more active AQAP is, the more targets there are for the C.I.A. and the more damage they can do to the terrorist group. Both the U.S. counterterrorism efforts and AQAP are in a race to see who can benefit most from the conflict, but no matter who wins, the people of Yemen are losing.

Lev Yuriditsky is an adjunct policy associate at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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