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Two days after the United Nations warned that Yemen was at risk of descending into civil war, clashes broke out between militants and government forces in southern Yemen and between tribal fighters and government forces in the capital, Sanaa.
The West has long been concerned that a destabilization of Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, could give one of Al Qaeda's burgeoning affiliates virtually free rein to plot attacks against Western targets. But amid a stalled uprising against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is not the only militant group stirring up trouble for the regime.
Government forces sought to link the fighting in Aden in the south to AQAP, but a local security official, referring to two explosions Thursday morning that targeted local security offices, told CNN that the attacks were too poorly planned to be the work of AQAP. Although the Al Qaeda franchise has a presence in southern Yemen, the region is also home to a local militant movement that targets the Yemeni government.
President Saleh's government has maintained its grip on power partially by insisting that if he leaves, AQAP will take over the country. During the country's tumultuous uprising in the spring, when the government's concentration on Sanaa left a security vacuum in the south, militants took over Aden and a number of other towns. Some government critics accused Saleh of intentionally allowing militants to overrun the south to bolster his argument that the country needed him to keep the country stable.
The US views AQAP as a serious security threat. The group claimed responsibility for the failed 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber plot, which targeted a commercial airliner flying into Detroit, as well as a cargo bomb plot the following year. According to the Los Angeles Times, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation between the US and the Yemeni government has grown since Saleh left the country for treatment for wounds incurred in the spring fighting.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar from Princeton University in New Jersey, criticizes the US for thinking it can deal with the AQAP threat independent of Yemen's other problems. Missiles and drone strikes alone will not rout the militants, he wrote on his Waq al-Waq blog last week, unless there is support from the Yemeni military – which there won't be, because the military is split between Saleh's eldest son and a defected military general who has sided with the anti-regime protesters.
Why lose men, munitions and machines fighting AQAP, at a time when you need to be conserving all three for a civil war you are worried is just over the horizon? Better to lose a province or two, goes the thinking, than the entire state.
And this is why I have such a problem with the US approach in Yemen. It is looking at the problem backwards. The AQAP problem isn't going to get better until there is a political solution, and the longer this drags out the worse off Yemen will become.
The Yemeni military only recently began trying to regain control and has so far been unable to shake the militants' grip, according to CNN.
The militants have rejected a government deal – to leave the area in exchange for a vow that the government will not pursue them – and said "they preferred fighting and martyrdom to surrendering," Col. Hussein Beleidi told The Associated Press.
CNN reports that the fighting began when the Republican Guard attempted to move on Sadeq Al Ahmar's residence. Fierce tribal-government fighting in May lasted 11 days and killed more than 80 people, CNN reports.