Q&A: Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?

The Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner reportedly trained in Yemen with Al Qaeda, but the regional offshoot of Al Qaeda appears to have no ties with rebels and secessionists challenging Yemen’s central government.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A convoy of Yemen's anti-terrorism unit drives on a mountain road after a training exercise near the Yemeni capital Sanaa Saturday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

What is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is an offshoot of Al Qaeda that operates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The group was formed in January 2009 when the branches of Al Qaeda operating in Yemen and Saudi Arabia joined under the leadership of Nasser Abdel Karim al-Wahishi, a Yemeni national who is suspected of having close ties with the Al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden.

AQAP’s organization is thought to be largely based in the eastern Yemeni provinces of Abyan and Shabwa, with some cells suspected of operating in the oil producing province of Marib.

The Al Qaeda in Yemen organization claimed credit for the September 2008 bombing of the US Embassy in Sanaa in which 10 Yemeni guards and four civilians were killed.

AQAP claimed credit for two suicide attacks in Yemen in 2009. AQAP launched its first attack outside Yemen in August 2009 when a suicide bomber targeted Saudi Arabia’s head of internal security, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. AQAP claimed credit for the recent attempted bombing of the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Christopher Boucek, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a report released in September 2009 that, “[T]here are increasing indications that Al Qaeda is regrouping in Yemen and preparing to strike at Western and other targets. Recent counterterrorism measures in Saudi Arabia have forced extremists to seek refuge elsewhere, and analysts have observed a steady flow relocating to Yemen’s under-governed areas.”

What is AQAP’s relationship to other militant groups in Yemen?

The group, as yet, appears to have no operational ties with the northern rebels or southern secessionists that are challenging Yemen’s central government. In May 2009, AQAP did, however, announce its support for the secession movement in southern Yemen, where many southerners are angry with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, accusing him of diverting economic resources to the north of the country.

But there is no evidence of AQAP involvement. Many in the Southern Movement, an umbrella group for southern secessionists that seek to reverse the 1990 unification that absorbed the communist south, retain socialist views that are anathema to the militant ideology of Al Qaeda.

Some analysts have suggested that the attempt to link AQAP with the southern secessionists is motivated by a desire to delegitimize the secessionists. The development of ties between Houthi rebels in the north and Al Qaeda is less likely. The Houthis are Shiites and Sunni Al Qaeda considers them apostates.

What role have ex-Guantánamo detainees played in AQAP?

Said Ali al-Shihri, an ex-Guantánamo detainee who was released into the custody of Saudi officials in 2007, appeared in a propaganda video for AQAP in early 2009 that proclaimed him the group’s second in command. Mr. Shihri was released after attending Saudi Arabia’s reeducation program for Islamic militants and resurfaced in Yemen.

Another former prisoner at Guantánamo, Mohammed Atiq al-Harbi (also known as Muhammed al-Awfi) appeared in the same video. Reuters reports that 1 in 5 detainees released from Guantánamo has joined a militant group, according to a classified Pentagon report.

How effective has the Yemeni government been at combating militants?

The Yemeni government’s record on fighting Al Qaeda elements in the country is mixed. AQAP’s leader, Mr. Wahishi, was one of 23 suspected Al Qaeda members who managed to escape from a high-security prison. Also among the escapees was Jamal al-Badawi, convicted of helping to plan the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Port of Aden. President Saleh’s government has often pursued a policy of appeasement, providing Islamic militants with amnesties, though crackdowns have often followed.

The Yemeni government has a history of making use of Islamic militants. For example, in the 1994 civil war with South Yemen, the Saleh government used “Afghan Arabs” – men who fought with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan – against southern secessionists.

What is the likely outcome of increased US military aid in Yemen?

Yemen’s domestic situation complicates any US efforts to defeat AQAP in Yemen. Among the most serious challenges are government corruption and increasing antigovernment sentiment among large swaths of the Yemeni population. In 2009, Transparency International ranked Yemen 154th out of 180 countries for government corruption.

Pat Lang, former head of the Middle East desk at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who also served as defense attaché in Sanaa in the early 1980s, says that limited US military involvement is useful in keeping the Al Qaeda problem there tamped down.

“We ought to provide them with enough materiel and money to keep them active in the field, and keep our special ops people chasing around people we don’t like,” he says.

But he adds that a major escalation would be a mistake. “The only thing you’d do by introducing conventional forces there is uniting more people against us and in anger at the central government.” Yemen’s other challenges include water scarcity and an ailing economy. “The country’s deteriorating security is a result of problems unrelated to security,” Carnegie’s Boucek wrote, arguing that an integrated package of development aid “can better address the interconnected challenges facing Yemen than can military and security aid.”

How does Yemen differ from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan?

Yemen differs in a number of important ways. While Yemenis are largely conservative Muslims, support for militant Islam isn’t as widespread as in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In many parts of Yemen, tribal allegiances often take precedence over religious affiliations. Though Yemen is an impoverished country with limited infrastructure and a corrupt government, it is not as lawless as Afghanistan.

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