US closes embassy in Yemen, leaving counterterrorism 'model' in tatters

The Houthis who took control of Yemen's capital hinted they might be willing to work with the US. But there's still the problem of their 'death to America' chants.

Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters
A general view of the US embassy compound in Sanaa, Yemen, January 27, 2015.

The US has shuttered its embassy in Yemen, a country that President Barack Obama hailed as a "model" last year for US counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East.

The coup by the Houthi movement, formalized last Friday, has now turned that model on its head and is raising questions about a continuing US role in trying to curtail the influence of Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the affiliate of Al Qaeda that has shown the most ability and willingness to carry out terrorist attacks in the West in recent years.

US officials cited the chaotic security situation in the capital, Sanaa, for the move to close the embassy and said US training of Yemeni soldiers will continue.

But with the Shiite Houthi movement, which has close ties to Iran and and includes "death to America" in one of its best known slogans, keeping President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under under house arrest and the risk of civil war growing, ongoing US efforts inside Yemen look tenuous. Since 2010, the Obama administration has conducted a campaign of drone assassinations in the country, consisting of about 100 strikes that have killed hundreds of alleged AQAP supporters and dozens of civilians.

While President Hadi and his predecessor were allies in that effort, ongoing intelligence support from Yemeni officials who answer to the Houthis appears unlikely.

The US isn't the only country whose mission in Sanaa is shredding documents and preparing to leave. Reuters reports that the UK, France, and Germany are also preparing to close up shop in the capital and have given their local staffs two months' paid leave.

Yemen's Shiites make up about 30 percent of the country and are concentrated in the northwest. The Houthi movement are sworn enemies of AQAP, but since taking power, the Houthi leader, Abdel Malik al-Houthi, a son of the movement's founder, has railed against foreign interference in the country.

'Not a coup'

The New York Times published an interview with Saleh Ali al-Sammad, the senior Houthi official in the capital, in which he said the movement wants to share power with its Yemeni rivals and seeks good relations with the US and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have been more alarmed by the rise of the powerful Shiite political and militia movement on their doorstep than by the threat from AQAP.

“Ansar Allah does not want anything more than partnership, not control,” Mr. Sammad told the Times, using his movement's formal name (which means "helpers of God.") "This was not a coup."

While calling an armed takeover of a country's capital, dissolving its parliament, and deposing its president and placing him under house arrest "not a coup" is novel, the US is likely to play ball with this characterization for as long as possible, since US law technically prohibits assistance to countries following armed takeovers.

The US has avoided calling the coup a "coup" so far. After the Houthis announced they'd seized control on Friday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf danced around the issue. "The unilateral declaration issued today by the Houthis does not meet the standard of a consensus-based solution to Yemen’s political crisis. There is a process under which you can change the government through the constitution," she said.

Asked point-blank if the US would designate what happened as a "military coup," potentially triggering a cutoff of military support, she responded: "I appreciate your constant attempts to get me to weigh into hypotheticals, but I’m just not going to here."

Just a slogan?

The US seems to be holding out hope for cooperation with the Houthis, something that Sammad hinted might be possible in his Times interview.

"It’s not in the interest of America and Saudi Arabia to see the economy in a crisis," he said. Asked about the "death to America" slogan that has now been plastered on walls across Sanaa, he said: "We’re not against the people of America, we’re just against its policies. It’s not meant to suggest harming American people. This is just a slogan.”

Whether it's an empty slogan or an honest expression of the movement's views, the US will have to come to grips with a new reality: Its counterterrorism model is in tatters, at a time when efforts to target AQAP have gained a renewed urgency – one of the murderers who participated in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last month trained with the group in Yemen.

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