October 30, 2009
Denying Al-Qaeda a Safe Haven in Yemen
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation and one whose role in the international community has traditionally been to compete for aid dollars, has recently risen to a position of prominence on the U.S. national security stage. Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, received visits from a string of high-ranking U.S. officials over the past few months, including President Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, who delivered a letter from Obama to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh pledging America’s support in fighting terrorism and stabilizing the country. Washington’s security concerns focus on the possibility of Yemen emerging as a new safe haven for al-Qaeda – a base from which it could design, prepare, and launch attacks on U.S. allies and interests in the Middle East and, potentially, the American homeland. The Yemeni government – which received $66.8 million in FY09 in defense assistance from the United States and is expected to receive more in FY10 – meanwhile has made clear that its top security priority is to defeat a domestic insurgency in the north of the country that has minimal, if any, operational links to al-Qaeda. The Yemeni government has directed much of its security resources to defeating the Zaydi Shiite al-Houthi rebels, whom it perceives as the most imminent threat to its survival. The nexus connecting the American and Yemeni security priorities is that success by the al-Houthi rebels will lead to a situation in which al-Qaeda could thrive. Thus, America’s support for Yemen in ending its conflict with the al-Houthi rebels is critical to protecting the United States and her friends from al-Qaeda.
The increased attention being devoted to Yemen’s security situation is deserved and may be occurring early enough to avoid the emergence of a terrorist safe haven on the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Qaeda undeniably has grand hopes for setting up a base of operations in Yemen, but the network’s local franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), currently appears limited in its operational capabilities. These capabilities could expand dramatically, however, if the Yemeni government collapses, creating a failed state in which al-Qaeda could thrive. Such a situation could result, at worst, in efforts by al-Qaeda to fill the power vacuum, or in the ability of the local franchise to operate at will in a lawless land. The top priority of U.S. policymakers regarding Yemen must be to make sure that the central government remains intact and effective in order to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven there. In real terms, from a security perspective, this means supporting the Yemeni government in defeating the most imminent threat to its survival, the Zaydi Shiite al-Houthi rebels, against whom the government has been engaged in a full-scale military operation since August 11, 2009 and fought on and off since 2004.
Yemen has long held sentimental and strategic appeal for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who now view it as fertile ground for establishing a much-needed base of operations. In a November 1996 autobiography that bin Laden provided to the Islamist journal Nida’ul Islam, bin Laden boasted about supporting the mujahideen fighting against the Communist party in South Yemen in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s. In 1997, bin Laden reportedly sent an envoy to Yemen to explore the possibility of setting up a base there in case the Taliban expelled him from Afghanistan. One year later, in an interview with al-Jazeera, he stated, “In Yemen we have strong and old links, by the grace of God Almighty, besides the fact that my roots and my father’s roots go back there.” The al-Qaeda leader in 2003 listed Yemen as one of six countries most in need of liberation.
Several factors today contribute to al-Qaeda’s attraction to Yemen, which intelligence officials believe has received an influx of al-Qaeda fighters fleeing from Pakistan and Afghanistan. First amongst them is Yemen’s location on the Arabian Peninsula – the homeland of the Prophet Muhammad and the earliest Muslim communities. Al-Qaeda does not recognize the political boundaries that divide the peninsula into separate states, and, in its long-term vision, the entire peninsula would ideally serve as the seat of any future caliphate. Accordingly, the now-defunct al-Qaeda franchise in Saudi Arabia launched a string of deadly attacks in the Kingdom between May 2003 and December 2004 to “purify and liberate [Saudi Arabia] from the defilement of treacherous rulers.” This effort provoked a severe crackdown on al-Qaeda’s efforts in the Kingdom and essentially eliminated the group’s capability to effectively operate there.
On the other hand, Yemen, which demonstrated stiff counterterrorism measures in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, including cooperating with the CIA to kill al-Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harithi in November 2002, had begun to lag in its counterterrorism efforts by the end of 2003. Counterterrorism efforts in Yemen hit a low point in February 2006 when twenty-three al-Qaeda terrorists, including the mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, escaped from a Yemeni prison. Many western intelligence analysts viewed elements of the Yemeni security apparatus as complicit in the prison break. The more relaxed security situation in Yemen stemmed from both complacency and the government’s perceived need to reallocate security resources to address other domestic threats. Such circumstances made Yemen a favorable alternative for al-Qaeda to plan, train for, and execute attacks against the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, both of which al-Qaeda views as hypocritical, apostate puppets of the West.
Yemen’s appeal to al-Qaeda is not limited to its location on the Arabian Peninsula. An education system whose textbooks still promulgate a degree of anti-American and anti-Israeli ideology produces young men vulnerable to al-Qaeda’s exploitation, as does the country’s 35% unemployment rate. Further, the underground arms market in Yemen is vast and weapons are extremely accessible. Yemen famously boasts that roughly three guns exist for every one person. It is not uncommon in the Yemeni countryside to see heavy artillery in families’ front yards. The easy access to arms offers al-Qaeda some of the tools necessary to protect itself and execute operations.
Perhaps the greatest appeal that Yemen holds for al-Qaeda is that it is on the verge of becoming a failed state. A failed state – one in which no central government exists or the recognized central government does not have the security capabilities or resources to exert its authority over the entire country – would provide al-Qaeda with the political and geographic space to operate unhindered. Such a situation offers al-Qaeda room to plan and train for operations, set up training camps, establish safe houses, and shelter top leaders.
The prospect of Yemen descending into a failed state stems from myriad economic, humanitarian and security issues. The country’s struggling economy is suffering from severe water shortages and steep declines in oil revenues, as both resources are literally running out in the country. The World Bank estimates that Yemen will no longer profit from oil by the year 2017. A growing humanitarian crisis that includes 155,000 internally displaced persons and approximately 160,000 Somali refugees also plagues the nation of 25 million. The grim economic and humanitarian situation is compounded by two security threats that appear far more imminent to Yemen’s survival than the threat posed by al-Qaeda.
The lesser of the two threats comes from a secessionist movement based in several of the country’s southern provinces – the location of the bulk of Yemen’s scarce oil reserves. The southern secessionist movement is led primarily by Tariq al-Fadhli, a former ally of President Saleh and veteran of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al-Fadhli received funding from bin Laden in the late 1980s and early 1990s to depose a socialist government in South Yemen (Yemen was divided into two countries – the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen – until unification in 1990). The secessionist movement now demands the re-establishment of South Yemen as an independent state. Grievances expressed by the secessionists include: economic marginalization (much of the country’s oil revenue is generated in the southern provinces but believed to be distributed throughout the country); forced early retirements and insufficient pensions for military officers from the south; and restrictions on press freedoms in the south for newspapers advocating secessionist agendas. The past year has witnessed assassination attempts on government officials and ambushes on security checkpoints and military convoys – allegedly undertaken by the movement’s more militant factions. Supporters of the movement regularly hold anti-unity demonstrations which, on occasion, turned violent and led to deaths and injuries on both sides. Despite the occasional clashes, the conflict has not yet escalated to the point that a reconciliation agreement is unachievable.
The more exigent threat to the survival of President Saleh and his government comes from the al-Houthi rebels in the country’s northern provinces of Sa’ada and Amran, where intense fighting has raged continuously since August 11. The al-Houthi rebels are a Zaydi Shiite insurgent group that the Yemeni government accuses of trying to reinstate the clerical imamate that governed northern Yemen for about 1,000 years up until 1962. The rebels on the other hand accuse the Yemeni government of widespread corruption, aligning itself with the United States, allowing too much Wahhabi influence in the country, and supporting years of economic and social neglect in Shiite parts of the country. The conflict finds its origins in a mosque in the northern Sa’ada province where, in 2003, followers of a group (“Believing Youth”) led by Hussein al-Houthi shouted anti-American and anti-Israeli slurs in the presence of President Saleh at a time when he was trying to maintain strong relations with the West. The Yemeni government responded by killing Hussein al-Houthi in a firefight in September 2004, which ignited an uprising by the rebels, now led by Hussein’s brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi (as of mid-October, conflicting and unsubstantiated reports of Abdul Malik al-Houthi’s death emerged). The government’s current military operation, OPERATION SCORCHED EARTH, is the sixth against the al-Houthi rebels since 2004. Previous peace efforts, including a Qatari-negotiated agreement signed in February 2008 and an announcement in July 2008 by President Saleh that the government would halt all operations in favor of a national dialogue, have failed. By early August 2009, the rebels had reportedly taken control of large swaths of Sa’ada province, blockaded military installations in the north, arrested Yemeni soldiers, taken control of sixty-three schools, kidnapped teachers and foreigners, and attacked numerous government buildings and mosques.
The al-Houthi rebels pose a minimal direct threat to the United States, as their grievances are with the Yemeni government and political in nature, even if occasionally phrased in anti-American and anti-Israeli terms. The rebels do object to Saleh’s alliance with Washington, and, in September 2009, they released a video showing kidnapped Yemeni soldiers in front of a poster reading “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel.” They have never, though, attempted to target American interests. Perhaps the greatest al-Houthi threat posed to the U.S. is the possibility that Iran has identified them as a potential proxy – similar to Hezbollah or Hamas – on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, a prospect that could yield the mullahs leverage in international negotiations. The Yemeni government accuses Tehran of supporting the al-Houthi rebels, and Iranian-funded media – in Arabic, English and Farsi – has served as a propaganda machine for the rebels. Concrete evidence confirming an operational link between the rebels and the Iranian regime remains insufficient, however. Yemeni security forces in late August did capture six al-Houthi weapons caches containing a variety of Iranian-made weapons, a discovery that corresponded with court confessions of al-Houthi supporters who claimed to have used Iranian weapons against the government. Both of these claims, however, need to be taken with a degree of caution as the weapons may have come from Yemen’s vast underground weapons market, and the confessions may have come under duress. Similarly, in late October, the Yemeni government announced that it had interdicted an Iranian ship off of Yemen’s west coast that was carrying arms destined for the al-Houthi rebels. Yemeni authorities detained the Iranian crew, but the Iranian government called the story a “media fabrication.” The continual allegations and denials of support from both governments, without any substantiating evidence to corroborate claims from either side, make it difficult to determine the actual role of Iranian elements in the conflict.
Coordinated cooperation between the Shiite al-Houthis and Sunni al-Qaeda is possible, but very doubtful. The al-Houthi cause is grounded in local political grievances, unlike al-Qaeda, which is driven by a violent Islamist ideology and has global ambitions. The recent discovery of the bodies of two suspected al-Qaeda terrorists of Saudi origin – including former Guantanamo Bay detainee Fahd Saleh Suleiman al-Jutayli – in the al-Houthi stronghold of Sa’ada province has led some analysts to suggest that the two groups are now working together. This claim, if true, would certainly be the first proof of cooperation between the two disparate entities whose only real common-ground is the desire to see the Saleh government deposed. In reality, if the two found dead were al-Qaeda fighters fighting alongside the rebels (as opposed to passing through Sa’ada en route to Saudi Arabia), this incident is likely more of an anomaly than evidence of cooperation. Al-Qaeda has more wisdom than to use their limited resources in a battle that the al-Houthi rebels have successfully waged for over two months. If AQAP did have a desire to battle with the state at this point, as opposed to taking advantage of the government’s divergence of security and intelligence resources to address the conflicts in the north and south, they would likely open up an additional front.
The localized and isolated threat posed by the al-Houthi rebels has led some American policymakers and elements of the mainstream media to accuse Saleh’s government of using his security resources to fight a war critical only to his own government’s survival, while ignoring the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Indeed, the growing trend of al-Qaeda fighters relocating from South Asia to Yemen is worrisome, but the organization has not succeeded in executing a spectacular attack in the country—or one planned in the country—since the USS Cole bombing in 2000 that killed seventeen Americans.
This lack of success is not for lack of effort or desire. The organization failed in a suicide-assassination attempt on Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Interior Minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, in late August. The would-be assassin, who was on Saudi Arabia’s list of most-wanted terrorists, claimed to have renounced terrorism and was then naively invited by the Prince to receive the Prince’s amnesty in-person at a Ramadan reception. The terrorist penetrated multiple levels of security with explosives hidden in his anal cavity and detonated them only a few feet away from bin Nayef but failed to kill or seriously injure anybody except himself. Al-Qaeda hailed the attempt as a success, as the would-be assassin hoodwinked the Saudi security services and got within a few feet of the intended target. In reality though, this poorly-executed attempt was a failure and an embarrassment for al-Qaeda. The network also failed to penetrate the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in a coordinated attack there in September 2008 (ten Yemeni guards and civilians did perish, however), and the group failed to hit its target in a mortar attack – the most rudimentary form of terrorism – directed at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in March 2008. The two most successful attacks carried out by al-Qaeda in Yemen since the Cole bombing were suicide bombings targeting tourists – a relatively accessible target – in July 2007 and March 2009, killing ten and five respectively.
Al-Qaeda and its franchise in Yemen undeniably pose a threat to the U.S. and its interests in the Middle East, and the network there remains hell-bent on executing a spectacular attack against its enemies despite the group’s evident lack of capacity at the current time. The threat that AQAP poses to the U.S. and its allies grows stronger, however, each day that Yemen’s military and intelligence resources are bogged down fighting the al-Houthi insurgency, which has proven since 2004 that it has no intention of surrendering easily. Further, the threat posed by AQAP will grow exponentially if the al-Houthi rebels defeat the Yemeni forces and significantly limit their capabilities or occupy them in battle long enough to marginalize the state security apparatus’ control over the country and render the central government ineffective. Thus, in order to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven in Yemen and limit their ability to strike American interests, the United States (and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia) must support Yemen in the difficult task of bringing final resolution to the al-Houthi conflict.
A final solution to the conflict does not necessarily entail months of fighting, or even a Yemeni counterinsurgency strategy, similar to the one executed by American forces in al-Anbar, Iraq. A negotiated solution, which has proven very elusive in the current round of fighting, would be acceptable if the al-Houthis agreed unconditionally to the six terms of a peace deal proposed by the government requiring the rebels to: a) return all military and civilian equipment seized from the state; b) stop interfering with local government authorities; c) fully withdraw from all districts in Sa’ada and remove all road checkpoints; d) descend from mountain hideouts and end acts of sabotage; e) hand over all kidnapped locals; and f) disclose the fate of six foreigners kidnapped in June. Further, the al-Houthis would have to recognize the government’s authority throughout the entire country and pledge to end all acts of sedition. Any peace deal must also require that the rebels allow humanitarian aid to reach northern Yemen, which, throughout the current conflict, they have refused to do. History has proven that anything short of such an agreement will fail. Any solution, regardless of whether it is achieved militarily or through negotiations, will require major investments by the Yemenis and international community (especially the U.S., EU, and Saudi Arabia) to rebuild the north and provide for greater economic and education opportunities in that part of the country.
U.S. support in defeating the al-Houthi insurgency – which could come in the form of emergency military aid (including equipment such as night-vision goggles, rifle scopes, and bullet-proof vests), strategic and logistical support, public statements of support (none of which have been made), and humanitarian aid to rebuild the north after the conflict – has three significant benefits to denying al-Qaeda a safe-haven. First and foremost, it will help (economic factors aside) preserve a central government that has the capacity to assist in defeating al-Qaeda on the peninsula. Saleh’s government is far from the perfect partner in the war on terror, but it does control a 66,000-person military and 50,000-person strong police force with which to target AQAP. Factions of the security force’s elite counterterrorism units have received U.S. training. A functioning central government also provides U.S. intelligence agencies an on-the-ground entity with which to share intelligence regarding the mutual threat. Secondly, a conclusion to the conflict would allow for the reallocation of military and intelligence resources to address the al-Qaeda threat. The current circumstances provide al-Qaeda with greater space to operate relatively unchecked by the security apparatus. A final, and frequently overlooked, benefit is that by supporting Saleh in defeating what he perceives to be the greatest threat to his government’s survival, the United States will consequently win his support in taking on al-Qaeda. For the past eight years, and especially over the past several months, U.S. officials have been asking Saleh to take more action against al-Qaeda without receiving much in return. U.S. support against the al-Houthis would certainly be incentive enough for Saleh to take greater action against AQAP.
In January of this year, al-Qaeda released a video in which Osama bin Laden urged his followers to open up new fronts for the jihad. Perhaps by coincidence, but far more likely by design, in that same month al-Qaeda released another video announcing the official formation of AQAP through the merger of the network’s Yemeni and Saudi franchises. Al-Qaeda’s hopes for AQAP and, accordingly, Yemen as a base of operations are grand. The United States must do all it can to prevent Yemen from becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda, which means making certain that the country’s central government does not fail and that it puts forth the appropriate effort to defeat al-Qaeda on its homeland. Helping President Saleh put an end to the al-Houthi insurgency is the first step to achieving that goal.