One year before the 9/11 attacks, suicide bombers struck the USS Cole while it was anchored off the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. In response, the United States and Yemen coordinated a fierce counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaida. By 2004, their combined efforts had virtually eradicated al-Qaida within the country.
Today, Yemen teeters on the brink of collapse: the army is battling an insurgency in the north, a southern secessionist movement is gaining momentum, and the economic downturn has exacerbated high levels of unemployment. Al-Qaida has reestablished itself with bomb attacks and assassinations that have targeted Yemeni officials, the Saudi government, and the American embassy in the capital city of Sana’a. As al-Qaida exploits Yemen’s growing lawlessness, it threatens oil-producing Saudi Arabia, vital Red Sea shipping routes, and security around the world.
Fighting in the North, Unrest in the South
The government in Sana’a faces a host of challenges to its authority, which has always been tenuous in a land of rugged terrain and tribal loyalties. The Shiite al-Houthi rebellion, which has raged intermittently since 2004, intensified in August of 2009 when the government launched an all-out offensive to crush the rebels in the northwest Saada province. President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in October that the military was on its way to victory, but his rhetoric was not accompanied by progress on the ground.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the HPR that Saleh’s prediction was unrealistic given the backlash caused by the military crackdown. “There is not a military solution to this conflict,” said Boucek, arguing that the government’s indiscriminate tactics are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis.
In the south, meanwhile, a secessionist movement that began in the 1990s is moving toward open rebellion. Since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, southerners have resented what they perceive as northern economic and political dominance. Anti-government protests are increasingly violent, and the defection of several prominent government leaders to the movement underscores its growing strength.
Sarah Phillips, a Yemen specialist at the University of Sydney’s Center for International Security Studies, told the HPR that secession is the greatest threat to the Yemeni state. “It’s a widespread popular resistance movement,” she explained. The movement has also disrupted oil production, Phillips noted, as most natural resources are concentrated in the South.
Falling world oil prices and disruptions in oil production have taken a toll on Yemen, which depends on oil for 90 percent of its exports and 70 percent of government revenues. Oil revenues dropped from $2.6 billion to $665 million in the past year and exportable oil is projected to run out by 2015. Phillips told the HPR that the drop in oil production is “the factor that really ties all of the crises together,” noting that the way the government has traditionally dealt with dissent is “by incorporating the leaders driving that dissent into its patronage networks.” As the oil dries up, so does the government’s ability to buy good will.
Yemen is also quickly running out of water. Some wells are falling by as much as 60 feet a year, and Sana’a could become the first world capital to go dry. Poverty drives more and more farmers to cultivate qat, a water-intensive plant that many Yemenis chew for its mild narcotic effects. The major national conflicts make it difficult to curb water shortages, which have in turn sparked many local conflicts.
Al-Qaida Back in Town
These great threats mean that the Yemeni government is largely unable or unwilling to focus on combating al-Qaida. “There are much more immediate priorities for the government than fighting al-Qaida-style terrorism,” Boucek explained. In the past, the Yemeni government has been a key ally in the fight against al-Qaida. Gregory Johnsen, a terrorism analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, noted that the joint campaign against al-Qaida in the wake of the Cole and 9/11 attacks was so effective that “by end of November 2003, the organization as such had really ceased to exist throughout Yemen.”
But al-Qaida has returned as a potent threat in recent years, precisely because of these myriad internal crises that demand government attention. A turning point in al-Qaida’s resurgence came in January 2006, when 13 al-Qaida inmates escaped from a maximum-security prison in Sana’a. Among the escapees was Nasir al-Wahayshi, a former secretary of Osama bin Laden who fought by his side in Afghanistan. Together with Qasim al-Raym, bin Laden’s right-hand man, al-Wahayshi has reassembled al-Qaida in Yemen as an ambitious fighting force. In September 2008, a coordinated assault on the U.S. embassy in Sana’a left 10 dead. In March, suicide bombers killed four Korean tourists and targeted a convoy of South Korean agents investigating the attack.
The group has also expanded its focus to the broader region. In January 2008, al-Qaida in Yemen announced on its website that the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al-Qaida were merging to form “al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula,” or AQAP. Johnsen explained that AQAP may intend to use Yemen as “a launching pad for attacks throughout the region.” Al-Qaida has targeted the Saudi government and threatened to disrupt crucial oil infrastructure. In April, Saudi agents arrested 11 al-Qaida fighters crossing into Saudi Arabia. Four months later, a suicide bomber nearly killed the assistant interior minister.
The prospect of a new Afghanistan, a safe haven used to plot attacks against the United States and other Western countries, makes the threat to security truly global. Although al-Qaida’s leadership remains concentrated in Pakistan, an expanding al-Qaida presence represents a growing problem for Washington and Riyadh.
Softening the Blow
The West has attempted to deal with the situation by supplying aid to Yemen, but the crisis of legitimacy surrounding the government has limited the effectiveness of aid efforts. Jane Novak, a journalist who was banned from Yemen for her coverage of the al-Houthi rebellion, told the HPR that the government is so de-legitimized, corrupt, and brutal that “supporting the government perpetuates the problem.”
Yet some government may be better than no government at all – as suggested by the case study of Somalia – and foreign support may be the only way to keep the economy afloat. Boucek pointed to foreign assistance in job training programs and health care, efforts to promote conservation and curb corruption, and greater integration with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional common market with a defense planning council, as specific, necessary remedial steps.
Eight years after the Cole attack, Yemen’s deterioration and potential collapse poses a threat to international security that is increasingly difficult to ignore. The coming year will be a critical period in which countries targeted by al-Qaida in Yemen, particularly Saudi Arabia, will be under mounting pressure to ensure the stability of the government in Sana’a before it is too late.
Image Credit: Ahron de Leeuw (Flickr)