For Americans focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan as key in the fight against terrorism, the attacks late last year at Fort Hood, Texas, and in an airplane over Detroit were a wake-up call that a new front is quickly emerging in Yemen.
The Nigerian who tried to blow up a jetliner as it landed in Detroit on Christmas Day claims to have received training in Yemen. And US officials found numerous links between alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan and a radical Yemeni cleric.
The White House, however, is already ahead of the curve in addressing the security concerns there, some experts say. Without fanfare, the Obama administration has ramped up military aid and backed vigorous counterterrorist action. Indeed, the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda said the Christmas attack was payback for two US-backed airstrikes.
Yemen presents an opportunity for the United States to get right what it has tried with mixed results in Pakistan and Afghanistan, experts say: take early action to help a faltering nation from becoming a haven for terrorists. America’s experience in those countries is informing how it deals with Yemen – quietly and carefully so as not to be seen as using Yemen to do its dirty work.
Yemen’s unemployment at 40 percent
The threats to Yemen’s stability are mounting. Once a culturally rich country steeped in thousands of years of African and Arab influences, Yemen has become economically, socially, and politically impoverished. Its population of 22 million is expected to double within the next 20 years, and about 40 percent of the current population is unemployed.
With the country’s main resource, oil, expected to zero out within seven years, according to an energy index compiled by BP, the concern is that the growing number of young men will become disaffected and radicalized, according to a report by Richard Fontaine, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
This is the setting that Al Qaeda seeks to turn to its advantage. Al Qaeda in Yemen came to prominence in 2000 with the bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden that killed 17 American sailors. Largely ignored since, Al Qaeda in Yemen now has about 1,000 operatives, say Yemeni officials.
Its failed attempt to use a suicide bomber to assassinate the head of counterterrorism of the Saudi royal family in August 2009, combined with the failure of the Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Flight 253, suggests an ineffective organization. Yet AQAP presents a nascent threat as it reaches to make an impact outside the region.
Nearly half the detainees remaining in Guantánamo Bay are from Yemen. Some reports suggest Yemenis already released were behind the Christmas Day bombing attempt. For this reason, Obama will confront a problem in trying to close Guantánamo.
How the US is reaching out
In response, the US has established a security program with Yemen that is small but has expanded significantly since last year. The Pentagon has given $70 million in military aid – training and equipment – in an attempt to get a foot in the door and strengthen goodwill. The US Coast Guard is also working to assist the Yemeni government in safeguarding a choke point in the Gulf of Aden that is in Western shipping interests.
But the US must strike a balanced approach to Yemen, where experts warn it must navigate a complex political terrain and not be too heavy-handed.
This is where the US can draw lessons from its relationship with Pakistan, say security and congressional experts. The US is keen on pushing Yemen to fight the Al Qaeda cell within its borders. But Al Qaeda is not the biggest threat to Yemeni stability. That is posed by the al-Houthi separatist movement in the north. The group’s aims are not well articulated, but it appears to want to topple the Yemeni government or at least foment an unrest from which it can draw strength.
The US has learned the hard way that if it does not focus on the internal dynamics of a country from which it wants favors, the results can be counterproductive.
Pakistan is a case in point. As in Yemen, Pakistan’s greatest threat does not come from Al Qaeda but from a domestic menace. The Pakistani Army is focused on the Pakistani Taliban. The US, however, wants Pakistan to confront the Afghan Taliban, who are based in Pakistan but attack US and allied forces in Afghanistan.
Learning from mistakes in Pakistan
Much of what the US learned in its terse relationship with Pakistan should be applied to Yemen in order to avoid the same mistakes, says one congressional staffer who traveled to Yemen this year and agreed to speak on background, as he was not officially authorized to speak on the topic.
“A lot of those answers should inform what we do in Yemen,” he says, adding that the US should focus on a long-term relationship that is not all about counterterrorism. Pakistanis have accused the US of only using Pakistan when it serves American interests.
To avoid that perception in Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh will seek “affirmation” from the US in a big way – financial aid and also trips to the White House and validation from wealthier neighbors like Saudi Arabia. “We need to create incentives for the Yemeni government to step up,” the staffer says.
The US may already be learning to tread more carefully. When the Pentagon publicized a US drone attack against Al Qaeda in November 2002, it inadvertently undermined the credibility of the Yemeni government. Last month, when the US assisted in a series of drone attacks against Al Qaeda, the US would not acknowledge its role, saying only that it “applauded” Yemeni efforts.