After the crash course the world received on Yemen in the wake of the failed Christmas Day attack by an operative based in Yemen and affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), coverage of the country has abated. But the threat emanating from Yemen looms as large as ever.
The New York Times Magazine will return some attention to the destitute country when it releases a lengthy article on Yemen in its July 11 issue (currently available online). Robert Worth’s insightful piece examines Yemen’s complicated tribal dynamics and the roots of anti-American Islamism in the country. He paints an accurate picture of the medieval situation that prevails there, and Worth’s conversations with Islamists and government officials allow him to provide an illuminating backgrounder on AQAP. The article — entitled “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” — serves as a reminder of the imminence of the Yemen terror threat and lack of U.S. strategy to address it.
The reader can deduce many parallels between Yemen and pre-9/11 Afghanistan from the article, including the dominance of conservative Islam in both cultures, the importance of tribal affiliation, and, most conspicuously, the extensive al-Qaeda presence in both places. One glaring difference between Yemen and pre-9/11 Afghanistan not discussed in the article makes the Yemen challenge uniquely difficult: The Taliban, a government that abused its people and went unrecognized by all but three countries, provided al-Qaeda a safe haven in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. Today, a Yemeni government that receives millions from the U.S. in assistance allows for the country to remain an al-Qaeda safe haven.
The New York Times Magazine piece reports on Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s historically close ties to Islamist militants and his eagerness to strike deals with al-Qaeda’s leadership, but it avoids detailing the president’s support for al-Qaeda over the past decade and his government’s lackluster efforts to target al-Qaeda since the Christmas Day attack. Saleh hindered the FBI investigation of the USS Cole bombing in 2000 (and even asked the U.S. to help pay for the damage to the port that he accused the U.S. of causing), oversaw a security apparatus that allowed ten al-Qaeda suspects to break out of jail in April 2003 and 23 more to do the same in February 2006, and appointed Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for his ties to bin Laden, to a presidential delegation in December 2005.
Saleh, who once went by the sobriquet “Little Saddam” and sided with Iraq to oppose the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, has hardly improved his government’s counterterrorism efforts since the Christmas Day bomber nearly killed 300 in the skies of Michigan. The exact number of al-Qaeda suspects killed or arrested by the Yemeni regime in the past seven months is hard to determine with any precision, because the government classifies nearly every crook, criminal, or dissident as “al-Qaeda” and the state-run media has a tendency to exaggerate figures. AQAP’s entire leadership structure, including its emir, deputy emir, operational commanders, and spiritual leaders, remains unharmed, as does the English-speaking cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the prominent AQAP associate linked to nearly every major terror attempt since 9/11. Further, the Yemeni government has failed to arrest any operatives directly connected to the Christmas Day plot.
Robert Worth observes in the piece that Yemen “is sure to descend further into chaos if something does not change. Everyone has acknowledged this, including President Obama and a growing chorus of terrorism analysts. So far the calls for action have yielded nothing.” Meanwhile, on July 6, an Islamist on a jihadi web forum called on the leader of AQAP to direct attacks “at the American presence in the [Arabian] Peninsula” in an effort to provoke “a direct American intervention.” The U.S. must urgently examine its relationship with the Yemeni government and develop a comprehensive Yemen strategy before the title of the New York Times article becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
– Chris Harnisch is an analyst and the Gulf of Aden team lead for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.