‘This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines,” said President Obama in his Wednesday-evening address, “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Successfully? If Yemen or Somalia is the standard of success, the president has set a low bar indeed.
In February 2006, 23 al-Qaeda suspects — including Osama bin Laden’s onetime secretary, Nasser al-Wuhayshi — tunneled out of a maximum-security prison in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and into freedom. Three years later, Wuhayshi and several prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, a deadly offshoot of the “core” al-Qaeda organization.
The Guantanamo Bay connection is noteworthy. The Obama administration would, for political purposes, like very much to empty the detention center still operational in Cuba. But of the approximately 150 prisoners remaining there, more than half are from Yemen. The vitality of AQAP makes it too dangerous to send them back to their home country.
How active is AQAP? Testifying before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security just hours before the president’s speech on Wednesday, National Counterterrorism Center deputy director Nicholas J. Rasmussen said: “AQAP remains the al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States.” In fact, it might outstrip the threat presented by the Islamic State: Nearly simultaneously the Office of the Director of National Intelligence tweeted, “ISIL’s ability to carry out complex significant attacks in the West is currently limited,” adding, “Nevertheless the United States is not immune.”
The threat posed by AQAP to the United States is not hypothetical. In May 2012 the White House declared a national emergency “to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States constituted by the actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Yemen and others.” In May of this year, they issued a continuation. A month before, the president continued a 2012 declaration of national emergency with respect to Somalia.
The Christmas Day 2009 “underwear bomber,” the attempted bombing of U.S.-bound cargo planes in October 2010, a third foiled airliner attack in May 2012 — AQAP is responsible for these and more, Francis Taylor, undersecretary in the Homeland Security department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, told Congress on Wednesday. Although the United States has run a low-cost shadow war, using drones and limited ground combat operations to cripple the leadership structures of AQAP and Somalia’s al-Shabaab, these organizations continue to threaten their respective countries’ weak governments. In certain areas of Yemen, AQAP has grown stronger. In August 2013, the United States and Great Britain withdrew their embassies’ staffs from the country citing, in the words of the State Department, a “specific and immediate threat.” In February, U.S. officials warned of the possibility of a terror attack directed at international air travelers; officials cited “chatter” about AQAP bombmaker-in-chief Ibrahim al-Asiri. This was al-Qaeda “on the run.”
Last month the Yemen Times reported an alarming new development: AQAP has announced “solidarity with our Muslim brothers in Iraq against the crusade.”
“Their blood and injuries are ours, and we will surely support them,” a statement purportedly from the group said. According to a Yemeni official quoted in the article, AQAP and Islamic State militants have been training together. This is what American “success” looks like in Yemen: the cooperation and collaboration of America’s bloodthirsty Middle East enemies.
It is no doubt a challenge to find examples of lasting American diplomatic successes in the Middle East. One almost sympathizes with the president. But the failures of America’s Middle East policy over the last six years are his — and touting Yemen and Somalia as models for Iraq and Syria suggests that the president has not realized that. That does not bode well for the long-term security of the region — or the United States.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review.