The revelations this week of a sophisticated plot emanating from the Yemen-based al- Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula organization have belatedly re focused attention on this most backward and poverty stricken of Arab states. The sending of explosive packages to synagogues in Chicago is only the latest act of international terror to have emerged from Yemen in the last year.
Yemen today exemplifies the central malaise of the Arab world in particularly acute form. Throughout the Arabic-speaking world, failed development, a political culture in which extremist Islamist ideology thrives and Iranian interference and subversion from outside serve to create a breeding ground for political violence to grow and proliferate.
Only in areas where strong and shrewd (though unrepresentative) state regimes exist – such as Egypt, Jordan and, in a more problematic way, Saudi Arabia – is the lid uneasily kept on this boiling cauldron.
Yemen is one of the weakest of Arab state regimes.
As a result, regional forces of subversion have linked up with local Islamists and are turning the country into a hub of instability – playing host today to no fewer than three separate armed insurgencies.
Yemen is the poorest Arab country; 40 percent of its people live on less than $2 a day. The country’s steadily depleting oil reserves are unable to generate sufficient income for the government to maintain the tribal patronage system on which it depends. Gas exports are failing to make up the shortfall. Yemen’s water supplies are also dwindling.
The regime of President Ali Saleh is autocratic, inefficient and largely ineffectual. Its economic policies have failed to develop the country. It rules in name only over large areas of the country.
Poverty, illiteracy, extremism and discontent are salient aspects of today’s reality in Yemen. And like Afghanistan and Sudan before it, Yemen is becoming a key regional base for al-Qaida. Unlike in these other two countries, in Yemen this has come about not because of an agreement reached between the jihadis and the authorities; rather, the inability of the Yemeni authorities to impose their rule throughout their country, coupled with the close proximity of Yemen to Saudi Arabia – a key target for al-Qaida – has made the country a tempting prospect for the terrorists.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a relatively recent addition to the various networks laying claim to the name made famous by Osama bin Laden. It emerged at the beginning of last year, when the hitherto little-heard-of Yemeni franchise of al-Qaida merged with the Saudi franchise. The Saudi jihadis were facing an increasingly effective counter terror campaign by the authorities, and therefore decided to shift focus to lightly-governed Yemen.
Through its organizing of the failed attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 in December 2009, AQAP made its bid for entry to the major leagues of the global jihad. Its guiding spirit, US born Islamist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, was in touch with US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the officer who murdered a number of his fellow servicemen at Fort Hood, Texas, a year ago.
The latest bomb plot now confirms AQAP’s status as the most powerful “branch” of al-Qaida outside of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are those who believe that the Yemen-based network has surpassed Bin Laden’s group as the primary terror threat to the West in general and the US in particular.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, however, is only one of the insurgencies to have taken root in blighted Yemen.
In addition to its hosting of the most active element of the global jihad, the country faces a separatist campaign in the south. Yemen was only reunified in 1990, and has since suffered a brief civil war in 1994.
The separatist insurgency led by Islamist tribal leader and former Bin Laden associate Tareq al-Fadhli grew in intensity during 2009 and has continued this year, with stormy demonstrations and armed confrontations leading to deaths on both sides.
Probably the most militarily significant of the three Islamist insurgencies was that of the Houthi rebels in the Saada district in the north. The Zaidi Shi’ite rebels of the al-Houthi clan have been engaged in an insurgency against the Yemeni authorities since 2004. Quelling the uprising proved beyond the capabilities of the Yemeni government.
In late 2009, the Shi’ite Houthis extended their activities across the border to Saudi Arabia. Their close proximity to the Saudi border made them a useful tool for Iran to pressure Riyadh. Responding to rebel attacks late last year, the Saudis struck back with aircraft and helicopter gunships. Iran was closely involved in this Shi’ite insurgency, sending regular arms shipments to the Houthis and continuing to stoke the flames of the rebellion.
Saudi involvement and Western pressure led to a cease-fire between the government and the Houthi rebels being reached in February. This was reaffirmed at the end of August, though the underlying causes for the violence remain unresolved.
So the situation in Yemen is one of a near-failed state, notionally aligned with the West but currently unable to effectively impose security throughout its territory. As elsewhere in the region, the resulting vacuum has rapidly been filled by the various, virulent malignancies that affect the regional body politic.
As for the solution, there is no magic formula.
But US President Barack Obama can ill afford yet another ground deployment, with its inevitable cost in American lives. So it is most likely that increased investment in building up Yemen’s security forces on the ground, increased deployment of intelligence assets in the country and the occasional use of targeted missile strikes on al-Qaida’s infrastructure will be the preferred path.
Saudi intelligence is reported to have played a vital role in intercepting the packages. Saudi involvement also helped to end the Houthi insurgency, at least for now. The lesson here is that for all the problematic nature of regional regimes, the dangers of Iran and the global jihad thrive best where, as in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, strong central government has broken down.