Why Yemen's US-aided fight against Al Qaeda could backfire
Experts caution that unless Yemen diversifies its approach – which led to success in neighboring Saudi Arabia – increased military action and overt cooperation with the US, which has dramatically increased funding, may ultimately backfire.
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“Al Qaeda wants to present Yemen on par with Iraq and Afghanistan ... to present Yemen as being occupied by outside forces, because once they do that, then it throws open the gates of recruitment,” says Mr. Johnsen of Princeton. He describes statements by Yemeni officials that there are no US soldiers in Yemen as “a very sort of calculated quote to indicate to the Yemenis that these aren’t soldiers, they are just advisers – and that the US isn’t occupying Yemen.”Skip to next paragraph
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Yemen’s predicament was highlighted when the CIA added to its hit list American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric tied to the Fort Hood shooter and Christmas Day bomber who is now believed to be hiding in Yemen. Initially, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said Yemen was waiting for US evidence of Mr. Awlaki’s terrorism ties before hunting him, but later amended his statement.
“Yemeni authorities look at him [Al-Awlaki] as having links with Al Qaeda and therefore he is targeted by the Yemeni government for arrest and prosecution,” Mr. Qirbi told the Monitor in a follow-up interview in his office. He maintained responsibility for capturing Awlaki was a domestic prerogative. “Outside interference, of course, will create political problems for the government.”
Saudi success has driven militants to Yemen
One country that has struck a balance between public cooperation with the US and countering Al Qaeda is Saudi Arabia, which launched a successful domestic offensive against the group in 2003. Saudi forces are better funded and have been receiving foreign training since the early 1970s, but experts maintain Saudi Arabia’s ability to dispel Al Qaeda stemmed from launching a variety of initiatives, something Yemen hasn’t done.
“The whole point is they’ve done many things and [it’s] precisely the diversity that partly explains the success. They’ve not relied exclusively on force,” says Thomas Hegghammer, research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo. Saudis used propaganda campaigns, constrained the financial resources of militants, limited their ability to acquire weapons, and offered militants amnesty to encourage desertion from Al Qaeda.
“In Saudi Arabia, the violence subsided to the level of zero, one, or two [operations] per year after 2006 and the organization didn’t produce any more propaganda," adds Mr. Hegghammer.
The irony of the success of the Saudi program is that Saudi militants have moved to Yemen. In January 2009, six years after the Saudis bolstered their counterterrorism offensive, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda joined forces under the new name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and made Yemen their base.
Measuring success in either country comes down to “what the militants say and what the militants do,” says Hegghammer. “In Yemen ... Al Qaeda is still carrying out operations at the rate of tens [of] attacks per year and is very active in producing propaganda, so [Yemen has] a long way to go.”