Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
A member of Yemen's anti-terrorist special forces takes part in a field training session in August 2009. U.S. officials say Yemen is being used as a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks in the region and beyond.
A member of Yemen's anti-terrorist special forces takes part in a field training session in August 2009. U.S. officials say Yemen is being used as a base for al-Qaida to launch attacks in the region and beyond. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
As President Obama convenes a meeting Tuesday of his national security staff to discuss the attempt by a terrorist to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day, one question will probably loom large: Can America trust Yemen to assist in the fight against al-Qaida?
The Nigerian man accused of attempting to blow up a trans-Atlantic, Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas was allegedly trained by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen. The U.S. Army major accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November had e-mail contacts with an Islamist preacher in Yemen before the shootings.
The U.S. has been engaged with Yemen on counterterrorism efforts for more than a decade — beginning even before the attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole in October 2000, killing 17 American sailors — and yet the threat from extremists there appears to keep growing.
An Al-Qaida Base
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday that al-Qaida is using the rugged, poverty-stricken country "as a base for terrorist attacks far beyond the region."
But over the weekend, the head of Yemen's national security agency, Ali Muhammad al-Anisi, said the threat of terrorism in his country was overstated. "Yemen is not a refuge for al-Qaida, as some claim. These are exaggerations," he said.
A Yemeni man passes framed pictures of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh displayed at a shop in San'a, Yemen, on Monday. Yemeni security forces killed two suspected al-Qaida militants in clashes outside the Yemeni capital on Monday, officials said.
A Yemeni man passes framed pictures of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh displayed at a shop in San'a, Yemen, on Monday. Yemeni security forces killed two suspected al-Qaida militants in clashes outside the Yemeni capital on Monday, officials said. Nasser Nasser/AP
The story behind al-Qaida's involvement in Yemen is a familiar one. Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula, is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and has strong tribal networks and a weak, corrupt central government — elements that make it a breeding ground of Islamist radicals. The country of 24 million people has large swaths of ungoverned territory and shares a border with Saudi Arabia.
Analysts say that after tolerating al-Qaida's presence for years, Yemen's government finally has to confront a force that has become an increasing threat to its own survival. But, they say, the U.S. must take a light hand in helping out.
Christopher Boucek, who studies Yemen at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says al-Qaida hasn't always been a priority for the Yemeni government in the past, but that the group has now become a direct threat.
"I think they need to be a partner in this," he says. "Al-Qaida has attacked Yemeni officials, Yemeni soldiers and government buildings."
But Boucek also says the U.S. shouldn't be perceived to have too much direct involvement in Yemeni affairs. "Direct U.S. military presence there is flat-out a bad idea," he says. "You'll just feed into the grievances that undermine the Yemeni government."
Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that for years Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was hesitant to crack down on al-Qaida, because he was beholden to some elements of the group, who helped his forces prevail in a civil war in the south of the country in the 1990s.
"[Al-Qaida] is also very tied to the tribal elements that keep him in power," Zenko says.
Barbara Bodine, who was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, says she thinks the Yemeni government can be a reliable partner in fighting al-Qaida. "They now have the political will to address this," Bodine says, "but they have a real capacity problem."
Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
Young men on the street in San'a, the Yemeni capital, on Monday after the U.S. and other nations closed their embassies because of threats of an attack by al-Qaida. The U.S. reopened its embassy on Tuesday.
Young men on the street in San'a, the Yemeni capital, on Monday after the U.S. and other nations closed their embassies because of threats of an attack by al-Qaida. The U.S. reopened its embassy on Tuesday. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
"It's very hard for Americans to understand how poor this country is," Bodine says. "There are no resources. This is a country the size of France, and it doesn't have a single river or lake. When they were exporting oil, their exports were roughly the same as Bakersfield, Calif."
Yemen's dwindling output of oil is now selling at vastly lower prices, too, because of the worldwide recession.
Yemen also has security problems that go far beyond the threat of al-Qaida. Boucek points out that the country's army has been strained by fighting with Shiite rebels in the north, and that the government is also trying to stave off a secessionist movement in the south.
Bodine says the United States can help Yemen most by contributing to programs that build the government and the civil service, as well as the military. "Building the civil service is not very sexy," she says, "But a state needs a strong civil service. Yemen may never be a prosperous state, but it can be a functional one."
The Obama administration is seeking a 56 percent increase in development and security aid to Yemen this year, boasting the amount to more than $52 million. That does not include counterterrorism funding of about $63 million this year.
Boucek says the U.S. also should focus on issues like improving Yemen's judicial system. Yemeni nationals can't be extradited under the country's Constitution, Boucek says, so it should be a long-term goal to train Yemeni prosecutors and judges.
"If it's not doable to extradite Yemeni nationals who are wanted in the U.S.; you need to help the Yemenis prosecute them," Boucek says.
Boucek points out that many other nations can help with civil capacity building in Yemen, thereby avoiding a large American footprint in the country.
While al-Qaida is a growing problem, Bodine says it has built-in weaknesses that Yemen and the U.S. should exploit. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a divided organization, she says, comprising elements from Saudi Arabia and Yemen that have very different goals.
"The leadership is essentially Saudi," Bodine says, "which makes it politically easier for the Yemeni government to go after them." She says Yemeni members of the organization are more likely to have domestic concerns, while the Saudi leadership is focused on much broader operations, such as the attempted bombing of the U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
"Let's make it clear that this is a Saudi organization using Yemeni soil to further its own agenda, because that will isolate them from the Yemenis," Bodine says.
Bodine, who now teaches at Princeton, says despite all the problems, Yemen has some advantages.
"They don't have the sectarian divisions that Iraq has," she says. "They don't have warlords like Afghanistan, and they don't have the clan violence of Somalia. Yemen doesn't have to be a failed state."