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Walter Rodgers

America's toughest terror test: Al Qaeda in Yemen

The US must learn to fight a different kind of war.

By Walter Rodgers / November 18, 2010



Tracking down Al Qaeda operatives responsible for shipping two bombs from Yemen to Europe and the United States may well be the most difficult challenge US counterterrorism experts have faced to date.

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How do you find and fight an enemy when you cannot openly use military force? In Yemen, that’s the US predicament. Washington must deal with an international terrorist force in a country it cannot invade, move about freely in, or occupy. Worse, it would be counterproductive if it tried.

Related: Q&A: Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?

Escalation would radicalize

One hopes that no US president would be so foolish as to insert American troops into an Arab backwater that is already fighting a home-grown secessionist movement in the south and a civil war in its north.

“Surgical airstrikes” have their advocates, and the Obama White House has deployed unmanned Predator drones to the region. But at least two earlier US unmanned strikes by drones against suspected Al Qaeda training camps in Yemen proved disastrous. The principal casualties were women and children. Afterward, local Al Qaeda leaders exploited the calamity as evidence that Washington wants to turn Yemen into another Iraq or Afghanistan.

Except for possibly Pakistan, Yemen is proving to be the safest refuge for terrorists now. Washington realizes any escalation of military initiatives would further radicalize what is one of the most primitive areas of the Muslim world.

A harsh climate, hard fighters

“The issue is geography,” says a former US ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine. Yemen is nearly all mountainous desert, about three-fourths the size of Texas. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) probably consists of 150 to 300 terrorists who can insinuate themselves into local tribes, dissolve into urban centers like Sanaa or Aden, or simply go to ground. “It’s like looking for the ‘Hole in the Wall gang,’ ” Ms. Bodine ventured. “It took years for counterterrorist experts in Washington to catch the Unabomber,” and she warned it will take at least as long to find the most recent crop of Yemen-based bombmakers.

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