The revelations this week of a sophisticated plot emanating from the Yemen-based
al- Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula organization have belatedly refocused
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.
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
Yemen is one of the weakest of Arab state regimes.
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
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.
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 counterterror
campaign by the authorities, and therefore decided to shift focus to
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.