Both the US and Britain resumed their diplomatic operations in Yemen Tuesday after terror fears shut both countries' embassies. But despite the more tentative restoration of activities by the British – their doors in Sanaa remain closed to the public – some suggest that Britain is better positioned than the US to confront the threat from Al Qaeda in Yemen.
While memories of Britain’s colonial involvement still arouse hostility among Yemenis, historians point out that the UK maintained its influence in southern Yemen for more than 100 years because of the savvy it developed in negotiating with and buying off tribal leaders.
It will tap into that knowledge to share strategies for isolating Al Qaeda in Yemen from tribal protectors at a major intergovernmental conference in London this month.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced last week that the summit on countering radicalization in Yemen would be held in parallel with a conference on Afghanistan in the British capital on Jan. 28. The forum will also focus on arranging a massive new transfusion of aid to the troubled country.
Michael Clarke, director of the influential Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says dealing with a new international security threat in Yemen revolves largely around synchronizing intelligence, but the London conference will be an opportunity to coordinate assistance to the country, ranging from security training to development aid.
While he characterizes the timing and location of this month's summit as coincidental, he says that Britain has a lot to offer on Yemen. “This is one of the issues where we may have more to offer because of our links and influence than in other areas of the world, such as the Pakistan border areas,” he says. “In some ways, Britain has got better visibility in Yemen than the Americans. I would suggest that the British have got better human intelligence on the ground,” he says.
For their part, British intelligence officials are thought to regard the threat in Yemen as coming from Al Qaeda members associated with the main organization in Afghanistan, rather than a new local branch.
“My understanding is that British intelligence has been tracking some Al Qaeda people who were moving from Pakistan’s borders areas because it has become more difficult for them to operate there,” says Mr. Clarke. “British officials are fairly clear that the Predator strikes, whatever the negative impact of them in Pakistan, have been very effective on the targets themselves.”
Britain acted before Christmas Day attack
Media reports in Britain suggest that before the failed Christmas Day bomb attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Britain had quietly sent a military unit to train Yemeni forces in surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and offensive operations.
The Sunday Telegraph reported that the deployment was motivated by concerns over British-based jihadists traveling to Yemen for terrorist training. The newspaper said that up to 20 British nationals traveled to the country last year to be trained, according to British government sources.
Other experts on Yemen point out that Britain had also taken a lead on development aid in advance of the current focus on terrorism from within Yemen’s borders.
While last year’s US Agency for International Development (USAID) provision for Yemen was $34 million, the funding provided by Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) was $40 million (£25 million), a figure that is expected to rise to $60 million (£37 million) this year.
She points out that the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge program in Yemen was suspended in 2007 after it emerged that a man accused of organizing the bombing of the USS Cole had escaped custody and was negotiating for his freedom through tribal intermediaries.
The past masters of this tactic just happen to be the British. Britain lost control of the Colony of Aden, centered around the country's main port in the south, in 1963. But between 1960 and 1967, when then-South Yemen gained its independence, the UK used financial incentives to lure Yemeni tribal leaders away from the orbit of Gamal Abdul Nasser's Egypt, whose Arab socialist government was viewed as a threat to Western interests. Later, Mr. Jones says, the largely Shiite royalist forces in Yemen’s civil war were covertly backed by the British in their conflict with the largely Sunni republican forces.
Jones compares the approach to the United States' generally successful practice of buying off tribes in Iraq’s Anbar Province to turn them into allies in the fight against local Al Qaeda supporters. “To put it bluntly, this is a process of bribery,” he says.
“The idea of passing on government money to tribal leaders, for ostensibly developmental purposes, is part and parcel of the British lineage in Yemen,'' Jones says. "It has to be recognized that the government in Sanaa has existed not as a means of controlling the tribes, but of arbitrating between them. That arbitration role seems to have broken down.”