America's toughest terror test: Al Qaeda in Yemen

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

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.

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.

The climate is so harsh that the ancient Roman legions made only one attempt to conquer Yemen. Beaten by a scorching sun and fierce tribes, the Romans gave up and never returned.

Today, the Yemeni countryside is frighteningly awash in guns – 50 million firearms in a country of 23 million people. Princeton University professor of Near East Studies Bernard Haykel cautioned, “Yemenis are a very battle-hardened people. They fight each other all the time. Armed tribes are all over the place.”

Operating out of one of the most inhospitable regions in the world, AQAP has become increasingly sophisticated in its terror tactics and plots. It is proving especially adept in its appeals to Muslims in the West, according to Dr. Haykel.

It’s worth mentioning that Yemen’s Hadhramaut Province is where Osama bin Laden’s father came from, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who now leads the AQAP faction, was one of Osama’s apprentices. Some Yemeni specialists say AQAP is trying to position itself as a competitor to Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The US Central Intelligence Agency now ranks Yemen’s Al Qaeda faction more of a threat to the US than its parent organization operating out of Pakistan.

AQAP fighters are pros. They are the sons and grandsons of Yemenis who, 35 years ago, went to Afghanistan to defeat the once mighty Soviets. Recently their ranks were strengthened after Saudi Arabia effectively stamped out its Al Qaeda chapter, leaving the survivors to flee to Yemen.

Help Yemen manage its vulnerabilities

Princeton University Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen says, “The United States must now learn to fight a different kind of war in a very murky place where it cannot use its mighty force. It will take a lot to reverse the tide there, and the US is short on options.”

Militating against an easy solution is Yemen’s burgeoning and sometimes hostile population, as well as its lack of natural resources. Today Yemen is an arid country; its people are running out of water. Its political establishment is fragile. Near term, some Western skeptics suspect President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government might want to inflate Washington’s terrorism fears to elicit more military aid to fight the southern secessionists and the rebels in the north.

In Washington, there is likely to be a growing tendency to label Yemen a failed state, although it is not so yet. There is, however, an undeniably hostile public environment toward the US. Yemenis generally support Al Qaeda’s broader worldview, if not its suicide attacks.

The challenge for the US now is to help Yemen manage and reduce its vulnerabilities. But Washington must avoid the multitude of mistakes it has made in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as blindly throwing money at undeveloped countries that cannot absorb it. By now we should have learned that a little money goes a long way in these places. And a lot of money often goes to help incumbent officials battle their rivals, not to fight terrorism that threatens Americans.

Folks – if you liked Afghanistan, you’ll love Yemen.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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