Violence A Symptom Of Deeper Problems In Yemen

Map of Yemen i i
Alice Kreit/NPR
Map of Yemen
Alice Kreit/NPR
U.S. Embassy, San'a, Yemen i i

hide captionThe heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Yemen's capital, San'a.

Khaled Fazaa/Getty Images
U.S. Embassy, San'a, Yemen

The heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Yemen's capital, San'a.

Khaled Fazaa/Getty Images

A Timeline Of Attacks Against the U.S. In Yemen

  • September 2008: Gunmen launch a suicide attack against the U.S. embassy in San'a, leaving at least 16 people dead.
  • March 2008: Attackers fire mortar rounds at the embassy compound but miss, striking a nearby girls' high school. The attack killed a Yemeni security guard and wounded more than a dozen girls.
  • 2006: A gunman opened fire outside the embassy but was wounded and captured by Yemeni guards.
  • 2004: Two Yemeni men were arrested for an attempt to assassinate then-U.S. Ambassador Edmund James Hull. They set off two bombs near a shop where the ambassador had stopped earlier.
  • 2003: Police guarding the embassy fired into a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq, killing two people and wounding dozens more.
  • 2002: A Yemeni man threw a sound grenade onto the embassy grounds just a day after Vice President Dick Cheney stopped in San'a for talks with government officials.
  • 2000: Suicide bombers in a small boat pulled alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in the harbor at the Yemeni port of Aden, detonating a cargo of explosives and killing 17 American sailors.

This week's strike on the U.S. embassy in Yemen was targeted at Americans but is the product of far wider problems in one of the world's most troubled countries.

Authorities in Yemen have arrested more than two dozen people in the attack on the embassy compound in San'a, a move that may reveal more about the shadowy al-Qaida-linked operation that left 16 people dead. The strike killed an American citizen of Yemeni descent who was at the entrance to the embassy, but no American diplomats were hurt. They were protected by defenses hardened to fortify a compound that has been attacked four other times over the years.

Barbara Bodine was ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to August of 2001, a period that included the suicide attack that killed 17 American sailors aboard the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. She says it's important to make a distinction between the attacks over the years and the perception that the U.S. has a problem with the Yemenis as a people.

Not All About The U.S.

"We have to restrain ourselves from being narcissistic and thinking this is all about us," says Bodine, who is now at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. "Remember," she says, "this horrendous attack was stopped by our Yemeni guards, who took heavy casualties."

Bodine says the attacks are a reaction to American policies but also a reflection of problems that are "deeply indigenous."

Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, says Yemen has seen a resurgence of al-Qaida in recent years. "But there's a division," he says, "between older and younger al-Qaida members. The older ones had an agreement [with elements in the government] not to stage attacks inside the country."

Haykel says the younger radicals, "many of whom have come back from fighting in Iraq," are not interested in any kind of compromise. "Yemen is a very traditional and religious society," he says. "It's a place where a lot of angry and ideologically motivated young men have gone off to war."

Corruption And The Economy

Haykel points out that Yemen is beset by economic problems, including a decline in its oil production, severe water shortages and soaring food costs. Wheat bread is an essential staple of Yemeni meals, and the government says that wheat prices have risen by 40 percent in the past two years.

There's also a rebellion of Shiite tribes in the country's north.

Former Ambassador Bodine says pervasive corruption has undermined the government's legitimacy.

"It's one thing for us to help extend the government's security control into the countryside," she says, "but we need to find a way to extend the government's legitimacy as well, by helping to improve governance, build schools and clinics."

Haykel warns that Yemen, like nearby Somalia, could become a failed state in the next decade, giving groups such as al-Qaida a chance to take advantage of the breakdown in law. He says the one thing that could stave off disaster would be a massive infusion of cash from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, which have an interest in keeping impoverished Yemeni emigrants from pouring over their borders.

Bodine says she doesn't believe Yemen is in danger of becoming a failed state, but she says a solution "is going to take wisdom on our part. If we hunker down behind our walls, we're going to lose our ability to understand the forces driving these problems."

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