- Oct 10, 2009
Yemen learns to profit from al Qaeda
The nearly successful Christmas Day downing of a Detroit-bound airliner has suddenly shifted the U.S. national security community's focus to Yemen. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Nigerian-born "knicker bomber," reportedly confessed to being trained in Yemen by an al Qaeda group.
Yemen and its problems are suddenly on everyone's agenda. On Jan. 1, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus announced a doubling in annual U.S. assistance to the country. On Jan. 28, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will host an international conference on Yemen, where he will no doubt call for increased international donations. It seems that whenever the international community discovers another al Qaeda franchise, a financial reward to the host seems to follow. Pakistan has perfected how to profit from this perverse incentive. Yemen is now showing itself to be an able student of the same technique.
Writing in Small Wars Journal, Lawrence Cline -- a career military intelligence officer, Middle East foreign area officer, and an instructor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School -- provides a comprehensive summary of Yemen's political and economic challenges. According to Cline, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government do not view al Qaeda's presence in Yemen as their most important problem. To Saleh and his government, the Houthi rebellion in the Shiite northwest and the separatist unrest centered around the southern city of Aden (due to unresolved issues from the 1990 unification of Yemen) are far more urgent. Yemen's problems do not stop there. The country is running out of both oil and water, hosts over 150,000 Somali refugees, and its trade suffers from the Horn of Africa's ongoing piracy problem. Yemen is a obviously very troubled place and Saleh in understandably seeking out as much foreign assistance as he can.
In this context, Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Saleh government may have settled into a mutually beneficial relationship. According to Cline, Yemen's government is not the focus of al Qaeda's terror campaign. Instead, al Qaeda likely values the sanctuary it finds in Yemen's remote areas and the access it enjoys to elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. Threatening the Yemeni government would risk these advantages.
From Saleh's perspective, he has likely learned from Pakistan how rewarding al Qaeda's presence -- largely benign to him -- can be. The impending deluge of U.S. aid, with Brown's conference to add to the bounty, illustrates the perverse incentives offered to leaders like Saleh.
Does this mean that the United States should not assist Saleh and his government? At this point it has little choice; it can only access al Qaeda by partnering with Saleh, Yemen's ministries, and its security forces. A decade after the bombing of USS Cole in the Aden harbor, the al Qaeda problem in Yemen seems as bad as ever. Over the past 10 years, the United States has provided funding and training to Yemen's security forces, a program frustrated by corruption and perceived Yemeni indifference to al Qaeda. This matches the frustrations the U.S. suffers with its security assistance program in Pakistan. Neither should be a surprise given the current incentives.
The solution is for the U.S. government to develop alternate paths to al Qaeda that bypass those local institutions that lack an incentive to confront al Qaeda. It seems as if the CIA officers recently killed at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan were attempting to create such an alternate path. Although that operation suffered a disastrous setback, such efforts are one of the few ways the U.S. can keep its reluctant partners honest.
This Week at War: Yemen's al Qaeda Scam | Foreign Policy