The long struggle against Al Qaeda since the 9/11 attacks has taken many twists and turns. Now it has even led to the forced evacuation of an entire city of 80,000 people – in Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.
The evacuation took place last week when the Yemeni military laid siege to the southern city of Loder in order to flush out a group called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which may have 300 to 500 fighters.
The battle, which left dozens killed on both sides, is the latest escalation of a joint effort by the Obama administration and the Yemeni government to rid the country of this dangerous affiliate of Mr. bin Laden’s core group in Pakistan.
The threat of AQAP to both Yemen and the West has grown over the past three years as Al Qaeda has suffered setbacks in Pakistan. The group trained the Nigerian suspect in the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas Day. And it includes the American-Yemeni radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who communicated with Fort Hood, Texas, shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and may be training many American-born Muslims for jihad.
The United States has poured millions in aid to Yemen’s military, bolstering it with help from US Special Operations troops. Now the US is considering the clandestine use of armed drones by the Central Intelligence Agency inside this impoverished and tribal country of 23 million people that sits at the edge of Saudi Arabia.
The key to this escalation of a military approach is that the US also needs to build up the weak Yemeni government and promote economic development. Otherwise, the increase in military assaults may simply drive many young, unemployed Yemenis to join the group.
Persuading the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to fight AQAP has not been easy for the US. But recent attacks on top Yemeni security officials has pushed the regime to see the group as a threat – to the point that it forced residents out of Loder for three days to help the military find key AQAP leaders.
Congress needs to carefully watch the administration’s increasing involvement in Yemen, balancing the concern that Yemen may be a source of more 9/11-style attacks against this struggle becoming an American quagmire.
Keeping US public support for each new front of the war on Al Qaeda is critical to success.