11 December 2009

Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, & Iran: The Importance of Connections

Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, & Iran: The Importance of Connections

Fighting continues in the Northwest between Yemeni government-backed forces (also supported by Saudi forces) and Yemeni Shi’a insurgents, led by the al-Houthi clan. The area around Sa'ada has been the major hot spot, and apparently allegiances in the local area are divided. Often these splits occur along tribal lines. The militants want to lay claim to an area – beyond the reach of the Yemeni government – where they can practice religion and promulgate official doctrine in a manner of their choosing.

This off-and-on struggle has endured for at least the past 5 years, but this is about as bad as it’s ever been. It has produced nearly 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) so far. Some are fleeing Southward … where al-Qa’ida has recently renovated its terrorist-training franchise.

So - there are a number of inter-related problems here that reach far beyond Yemen itself. Here’s a quick glimpse:

If You Push Them, They Will Come… To Al-Qa’ida:

Violent extremists across the globe, particularly in the past decade, have increasingly deployed service-oriented diplomacy in their recruitment efforts. This approach has been wildly successful for Hizb’allah . They penetrate ungoverned spaces, set up social services (from medical clinics to core infrastructure) that local government lacks capacity or willingness to provide, and they build goodwill by taking on the role of “provider.” In some areas, they have so much control that they function like a proxy government, even collecting taxes from the citizens. When your young child is dying and your government shrugs its shoulders, and someone is there offering to help – that someone looks like a friend for life. That’s the plan. Now, hundreds of thousands of refugees are running away from their government in the Northwest and into Southern regions, which are heavily influenced by al-Qa’ida. If AQ becomes the port in the storm, we can plan to watch as the recruit tally steadily rises.

Yemen May Not Be a Gem, But It Might Be Kind of a Big Deal:

The neighborhood is a significant part of the challenge here. Not only are IDPs flocking to Southwest Yemen from the North, but they are coming just as steadily from across the pond in Somalia – a nation with its own set of governance and Islamist militancy troubles. A significant number of the recruits in AQ’s new South Yemen training campus are Somali. Southwest Yemen and Northeast Somalia lie directly across the Gulf of Aden from each other. That interstitial space – heavily plagued right now by Somali-based pirates – is a major shipping portal. One does not enter the Red Sea, except through that gateway. Nor can West-Coast Saudi Maritime traffic enter the Gulf of Aden except through that gateway. Piracy, pervasive but not yet highly organized off Somalia’s coast, has already cost millions of dollars. If an AQ/Shabaab coalition boosted the effort, it’s probably fair to say that would not help the World economy.

Saudi Arabia and Iran Both Have Dogs in the Fight:

Because the Houthi-affiliated militants several weeks ago stepped across the line into Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom launched a counteroffensive to push them back (and to support Yemen’s government-backed forces). Some in Yemen say this has added fuel to the insurgency, because even more are ready to fight against the Saudis than to fight for the Houthis. Saudi presence and activity lingers in NW Yemen, much to the dismay of Iran. Iran is still a bit miffed that 3-4 years ago the Saudi’s also stuck their nose in an international dispute when Israel launched a major offensive against Hizb’allah. Saudi supported Israel – and it’s probably no secret that there is some affinity between Hizb’allah and Iran. ‘Nuff said. Yemen, in fact, claims that Iran is now supporting the Houthi-affiliated insurgency, and that they (and also Hizb’allah) have been the main source for militant training. The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center also thinks that Africa - East Africa in particular - is an important target for Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s ambitious foreign policy. Though most analysts see no major worry for a full-scale proxy war, having Saudi Arabia and Iran both join in the game - and on opposing sides - is -- let’s say “unlikely to facilitate regional peace.”

The concern here is clearly about more than two terribly impoverished, and under-governed countries. The current human rights challenges facing this area are certainly significant, but the economic and global security stakes may ultimately be even higher.

-Randy Borum