Yemen isn’t a country well-studied in geography classes. But it may be from now on.
And it could also become the “new Afghanistan” for Western nations.
The near-miss bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day has put a global spotlight on this troubled Muslim nation as a growing source of terrorist strikes.
The suspect in the incident, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to light an explosive attached to his leg as the aircraft approached Detroit after crossing the Atlantic from Amsterdam. This type of bombing technique was promoted in October on a jihadist website by the leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
This poorest of Arab nations, beset with civil unrest, lawlessness, and a water crisis, first became known as a terrorist haven after the 2000 suicide attack against the warship USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors. With the 9/11 attacks, the world learned that Osama bin Laden’s family came from Yemen. And because young Yemeni men have joined Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan for years, about half of the remaining 210 detainees at Guantánamo Bay are from that country.
By 2002, the CIA was conducting predator drone attacks on terrorist groups in the country. The radical cleric linked to last month’s killings at Fort Hood military base, Anwar al-Awlaki, has been living in Yemen. And with more pressure on jihadists in Pakistan, many members of Al Qaeda have also moved to Yemen (as well as Somalia).
The use of preemptive action in Muslim countries isn’t very popular in the US, but President Obama needs to consider it for Yemen, which has a population of about 23 million. He’s already promised $70 million for the elected government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in its fight against terrorist groups. The government recently responded with effective air strikes on leaders of Al Qaeda affiliates in December, perhaps killing many of them.
In addition, Yemen’s big neighbor, Saudi Arabia, invaded the country last month in an attempt to subdue a Shiite insurgent group that may have ties to Iran. Another Saudi motive may have been to send a message to Al Qaeda (a largely Sunni group) after a Saudi suicide bomber connected to a Yemen-based group tried to kill the Saudi deputy interior minister in August. Many Saudi followers of Mr. bin Laden have also fled to Yemen because of a crackdown on militants in Saudi Arabia.
The prospect of Yemen becoming a major training ground for suicide bombers in the West needs urgent attention. The country is a “potential regional base of operations” for Al Qaeda attacks globally, according to Michael Leiter, the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center.
Chasing Al Qaeda-linked militants as they try to find havens won’t be easy. But it can be one effective way to keep US airplanes from being blown up in the sky.