Al-Qaida's New Home Dealing with the Yemen Dilemma
Ever since al-Qaida began establishing a presence in Yemen, the impoverished Arab country has become the focus of Western intelligence agencies. The government in San'a has already received massive military aid from Washington. Yet for the West, all the possible courses of action in Yemen look equally unattractive.
Deep inland, 80 kilometers beyond the Doan Gorge in the Hadramaut region, lies the picturesque village of Ribat Baashen. The houses cling to a shadowy cliff, and fields of corn and palm groves line the valley floor.
It was here in the "high mountains and deserts" of Yemen, that land of his ancestors, that Osama bin Laden once wanted to settle and breathe the "fresh air." In the 1920s his father Mohammed left the village, in the 1950s his uncle Abdullah was the first to install running water. Not much has happened there since. Recently the first ever asphalt road was laid and a plaque with the name of the village was erected.
Yemen is beautiful, poor, backward -- and dangerous. Eight years after the 9/11 attacks, this is the place the latest generation of Islamist terrorists have chosen to make their "base."
Any remaining doubts were dispelled by the propaganda section of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP): "With the grace of Allah alone the heroic brother, martyrdom-seeking Umar Farouk, managed to carry out a special operation on an American airplane, from the Dutch city Amsterdam to the American city Detroit, and this happened during the Christmas holiday."
In the US, the failed attack by the suspected bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the Northwest Airlines flight has reawakened a fear of terrorism that had been painstakingly overcome. The focal point of this fear is no longer Afghanistan, where 68,000 US troops are stationed, or Iraq, with 120,000 US troops. Nor is it Pakistan, where it is assumed Osama bin Laden and the leadership of the old al-Qaida, are holed up. It is Yemen.
'Now Al-Qaida Is in for It'
"Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has developed much more strength which exceeds that of the other al-Qaida branches," says Richard Barrett, the United Nations Coordinator of the al-Qaida and Taliban Monitoring Team. In fact Western and Arab governments and intelligence agencies, particularly the Americans, have been paying far closer attention to Yemen.
In May the Deputy Director of the CIA, Stephen Kappes, met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In June, it was the turn of David Petraeus, head of US Central Command which is responsible for the Middle East. In September John Brennan, Obama's advisor on fighting terrorism, paid a visit.
The highpoint of this "strong partnership" between Washington and San'a was reached in the days preceding the attempted attack on Detroit. On Dec. 15 the allies launched a combined air and ground offensive against presumed al-Qaida camps near the capital and in the provinces of Shabwah, al-Jawf and Abyan. On Christmas Eve, they bombed a complex of buildings in Shabwah, where it is alleged the al-Qaida leadership had arranged to meet.
The White House has neither confirmed nor denied reports from the US network ABC that US fighter jets took part in the operation and shot two cruise missiles. However, President Barack Obama did call his Yemeni counterpart after the first operation and congratulated him. "Now al-Qaida is in for it," claimed, somewhat prematurely, the Yemeni counter-terrorism expert General Jahja Abdullah at the time.
Washington has been investing huge sums in military infrastructure in Yemen: In 2006 they provided the country with $11 million (7.6 million) and by 2009 the sum had increased to $70 million (48.5 million).
The country plays a central role in the jihadists' plans. Yemen has historically had deep-rooted connections to Saudi Arabia, East Africa and the Islamic countries of Southeast Asia -- locations that have long been the focus of militant Islamists' attention. From Yemen and Somalia, it is possible to exert control over the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the entrance to the Red Sea, through which some three million barrels of crude oil are shipped daily to the West.
Ideal Breeding Ground
Yemen is a country whose war-torn history, poverty and weak government offer almost ideal conditions for the establishment and recruitment of a terrorist network. North Yemen, which was reunified with socialist South Yemen in 1990, is conservative and dominated by local tribes. Its leaders have long regarded Islamists as their natural allies.
For the mujahedeen returning from Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the suppression of the godless South Yemeni was a logical continuation of their victorious war against the Soviets in the Hindu Kush. Even today, Afghanistan veterans have ties that reach as far as President Saleh's innermost circle. Sheik Abdulmajid al-Zindani, known as the "red sheik," is a former associate of bin Laden and is one of the most powerful people in Yemen.
The more the Americans stepped up the pressure on al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the more attractive Yemen became as a place to retreat to. And even though many Islamist leaders were arrested in Yemen and others ended up in the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, the young Islamists kept coming in their droves, mainly from Africa and Southeast Asia. Hundreds of Somalis, Indonesians and Malaysians attended al-Zindani's notorious Iman University in San'a and returned home as firebrand preachers.
Yemen proved to be particularly useful for members of the Saudi Arabian branch of al-Qaida, which found itself in trouble after the killing of its leader Abdul Aziz al-Muqrin in 2004 following a series of spectacular terrorist attacks. Several members relocated to Yemen, including the two Guantanamo returnees Said Ali al-Shihri (whose prisoner number at Guantanamo was 372) and Muhammad al-Awfi (prisoner number 333). Both men took part in a rehabilitation program in the Saudi capital of Riyadh after their release in 2007, but went into hiding in neighboring Yemen shortly afterwards. Al-Shihri even became the deputy leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which was formed in January 2009 by the merger of the al-Qaida groups in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
A third Saudi Arabian, Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri, contacted Saudi Arabia's Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in late August, under the pretence of wanting to turn himself in. Once inside Prince Nayef's office, al-Asiri set off a bomb that blew himself up but only slightly injured the prince. The terrorist is believed to have hidden the explosives in his intestine or his underpants -- possibly setting a precedent for the Detroit bomber's attempted attack.
All Options Equally Unattractive
Yemen's apparently inexorable decline has been a factor in the ability of the second generation of al-Qaida fighters to carry out the attempt on Prince Nayef's life as well as other serious attacks. In 2007, the conflict with South Yemen, which wants to secede, re-ignited again, as did the civil war with the Shiite Houthi rebels in the north of the country in 2009.
For Washington and the West, Yemen poses a challenge where all the possible courses of action are equally unattractive. Leaving the country to its own devices and its tribes could lead to a Somalia-style failed state. Increasing military operations and engaging more strongly in the fight against terrorism would, however, turn the population further against the US, as has happened in Pakistan.
In both scenarios, the likely winner would be Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. He recently got his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to reveal his vision for the country. In a message, al-Zawahiri told Yemen's tribes that they should follow the example of Afghanistan's Pashtuns. They should not allow Yemen to be turned into "a supply center for the crusade against the Muslim countries," he said. Instead, they should emulate Saudi Arabia's mujahedeen -- as "a thorn in the throat" of the country's rulers.