12 January 2010

Yemen Catch-Up

Special Yemen Edition

Within the past several months, Yemen has moved from relatively obscurity to the front pages of most major newspapers around the world... even more so since reports that it was the training ground for the s-called "underwear bomber" Abulmutallab.

Trying to get up to speed on the issues? You're in good company. Consider a look at some of the following stories, resources, and analyses. It may not be a one-dose solution, but perhaps a a good first step.

Waq al-Waq (An Excellent Blog on Yemen)

This is one of the most insightful blogs on Yemen-related issues that I've seen. It is co -edited by Gregory Johnsen and Brian O'Neill. Johnsen is a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, currently finishing his a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. O'Neill is a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer. These guys know Yemen. They explain their rationale for doing the Waq al-Waq blog as follows:

We both have been studying Yemen for years, and as the country has risen in importance, the quality of discussion has declined. We wanted to contradict some other individuals, blogs and commentators who have no experience in Yemen or with Arabic, and who turn the facts to fit their opinions. We feel that presenting a thoughtful and nuanced discussion of Yemeni affairs, based in knowledge of its history and culture is in the best interest of all. That said, this is not an academic blog, and provides a lighter tone than our other publications, and also allows us to indulge our unhealthy interests in medieval swords and mysterious islands that color Yemeni history.

Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral

Christopher Boucek is an associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program and a great source of information both on extremist rehabilitation programs and on regional issues. In September, he did this paper for Carnegie:

A confluence of looming challenges—economic ruin, an emerging water shortage, violent extremism, and a growing secessionist movement—threaten to overwhelm the Yemeni government, provide a breeding ground for terrorists, and destabilize the region. Yemen has survived past crises but the current risks are unprecedented in their scope and interconnectivity, warns a new paper by Christopher Boucek.

Key Conclusions:

  • There are increasing indications that al-Qaeda is regrouping in Yemen. Recent counterterrorism measures in Saudi Arabia have forced extremists to seek refuge elsewhere, with a steady flow relocating to Yemen’s under-governed areas.
  • The ceding of authority by the weak central government to local government has proved counterproductive by limiting control over volatile under-governed territories.
  • The security situation is rapidly deteriorating. Fighting with Shi’i rebels in north Yemen has strained the army, and Yemen is unable to protect its coast from the recent surge in piracy.
  • The poorest in the Arab world, with unemployment at 35 percent, Yemen’s economy has been severely effected by the dramatic fall in oil prices and has few sustainable post-oil, economic options.
  • Yemen is running out of water. Rising domestic consumption, poor water management, corruption, the absence of resource governance, and wasteful irrigation techniques are creating frequent and widespread shortages.
  • Yemen’s lack of food and water is complicated by the population’s dependence on qat, a quick-cash crop that requires heavy irrigation to thrive. Farmers devote so much land to qat production that Yemen is now a net food importer.

  • Yemen must build local capacity in law enforcement and its legal and judicial systems by enacting counterterrorism legislation, passing terror finance laws, improving police training, and professionalizing the prison service.
  • The Gulf states should make Yemen’s membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council contingent on tough steps, including progress on curbing government subsidies, addressing corruption, and enacting measures to curtail security concerns.
  • U.S. aid to Yemen is disproportionately small given its importance to U.S. national security. Development assistance, education and technical cooperation, capacity building, institution strengthening, and direct financial assistance can better address the interconnected challenges facing Yemen than military and security aid.

Boucek concludes:

“If left unaddressed, Yemen’s problems could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The inability of the Yemeni central government to fully control its territory will create space for violent extremists to regroup and launch attacks against domestic and international targets. The international community must be realistic about the limitations of intervention in Yemen. In the near term, however, inaction is not an option.”


Interview with Christopher Boucek: A Fraying Yemen's Terrorism Problem

Council on Foreign Relations

The Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day reportedly received weapons training in Yemen, and the al-Qaeda affiliate there has claimed responsibility (AP). Yemen analyst Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, if confirmed, these latest developments in the country pose a serious challenge to U.S. and regional security efforts. For one, plotting against targets on U.S. soil represents an expansion of the al-Qaeda affiliate's ambitions, he says. The terror group's rise occurs at a time of growing security and economic challenges besetting Yemen's central government--from civil war to a shortage of oil and water. If left unchecked, Boucek says, conditions may ripen for al-Qaeda's further entrenchment in Yemen.

Petraeus: Aid to Yemen Likely to Double in 2010
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

“Last year, it was somewhere around $70 million,” the commander of U.S. Central Command said of U.S. counterterrorism funding to Yemen. “Over the course of this fiscal year, it should be somewhere around $150 million or more.” ….

On the heels of a recent trip to Yemen, Petraeus said the United States does not intend to deploy military forces there, adding that Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi has made clear that Yemen does not want American troops on the ground.

The United States increased so-called 1206 funding to Yemen from $4.6 million in fiscal 2006 to $26 million the following year; no such counterterrorism assistance was allocated in 2008. American aid last year provided Yemen with radios, helicopter spare parts, trucks, patrol boats, and maintenance training, military officials said.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: A Primer
What you need to know about the organization that gave us the Christmas bomber.
Michelle Shephard – The New Republic

Yemen has had a long and complicated relationship with Al Qaeda, stemming back to the late 1980s when Arab veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan were welcomed back as heroes. In the conservative country, where bin Laden remains a popular figure, Saleh’s government has always understood the importance of cooperating with Islamic leaders, and keeping the Arab-Afghan jihadists close. In 1994, four years after Saleh was proclaimed the president of the newly unified north and south, many of those fighters were dispatched to stop a southern attempt to separate.


President Saleh was, however, among the first foreign leaders to pledge his support to the Bush administration following the 9/11 attacks--a position he made clear during a November 2001 visit to Washington. A year later, an unmanned CIA drone killed the head of Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch. Shortly thereafter, his replacement was arrested. While Saleh paid a high price at home for allowing the U.S. strike, the loss of the group’s leaders, in addition to the war in Iraq that attracted hundreds of Yemeni jihadists, made it appear in 2003 as if Al Qaeda had been largely defeated in the country.

But three years later, al-Wahishi took advantage of the lapsed vigilance by the American and Yemeni forces and built his group. As Saleh’s government tried to quell a northern insurgency and a secession movement in the south (still regarded in Yemen as far greater threats to the country’s stability than Al Qaeda), al-Wahishi’s group waged attacks on local oil and gas facilities.

In June 2007, a suicide bomber targeted Spanish tourists, and six months later two Belgians were killed when gunmen ambushed their vehicles. A series of other strikes followed, culminating in the September 2008 suicide bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a that killed 18, including the six assailants. Meanwhile, Saudi fighters were increasingly bolstering the group’s ranks, since many had fled south across the border following Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed crackdown on extremists.

The Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda made their “merger” official in January, adopting the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A January 23 video broadcast on an Al Qaeda website identified the new Saudi leaders as Said Ali al-Shihri, a 35-year-old former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had been released in November 2007, and Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi, identified on the video as Guantanamo detainee 333.

Embarrassingly for both Saudi Arabia and the U.S., due to past praise of the Kingdom’s handling of Al Qaeda, the AQAP leaders had both participated in the well-funded Saudi rehabilitation program. Though al-Awfi surrendered to Saudi authorities a month later, al-Shihri is still an important figure within the group.


Most Wanted: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

By Bill Roggio
The Long War Journal

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has risen to prominence over the past month after two US-backed airstrikes targeted training camps and a leadership meeting in Yemen. Just one day after the Christmas Eve strike that targeted Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's top leaders, a Nigerian attempted to blow up an airliner over Detroit. In Yemen, the bomber had received training, the explosive device, and the ideological justification to carry out the attack. The presentation above (click image or click here to view) lists 10 of the most wanted leaders and operatives in the terror group. Read more.

Yemen's Most Wanted
Meet the new al Qaeda bad guys that keep U.S. counterterrorism officials up at night.

By David Kenner
Foreign Policy Magazine

A virtual tour through the AQAP leadership.

Yemen 'cannot contain al-Qa'ida'
By Donald Macintyre – The Independent

The governor of a key province in the front line of Yemen's struggle against al- Qa'ida has admitted that the government's control in his area is "not strong", and says that no extra troops have been deployed there despite official suggestions that the threat of al-Qa'ida is being contained with a new crackdown by Yemeni forces.

As Yemen faces mounting US and international pressure to combat the use of the country as the new base for al-Qa'ida in the Arabian peninsula, the governor of Abyan province, one of the southern provinces seen as al-Qa'ida strongholds, said "truthfully and honestly, it [government control] is not so strong". Ahmed Bin Ahmed al-Misri, who said the threat from al-Qa'ida in the mountain regions of his province had grown in the last six months, added: "There are not enough weapons, there are not enough soldiers."

The difficulties faced by Abyan's most senior official provide a rare insight into the problems in conducting the so-called "war on terror" in a relatively remote, rugged and undeveloped country where deep poverty, tribalism and religious conservatism allow radical influences to flourish.