June 3, 2011

Yemen - fertile gound for al-Qa'idah

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Yemen is creating fertile ground for al-Qa'idah's local affiliate to create a new Afghanistan. This "new Afghanistan," however, will sit on the border of America's key Arab ally in the region, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. On June 3, there was an attack on the Yemeni presidential palace compound Sana'. President 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih was slightly injured, and was able to make an audio announcement later in the day.

Salih's cat-and-mouse game over how and when he will relinquish power only serves to exacerbate the violence in the country. More than 350 people have been killed since the uprising started in January. At some point, he will have to step down as president. There is a Gulf Co-operation Council deal on the table that would allow Salih to relinquish power with a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. He would be wise to take it.

That begs the question: what happens after he departs?

Unless there is an orderly transition of authority, there will be a huge power vacuum in the country. Given the fractious tribal society that is Yemen, it is highly unlikely there will be an orderly transition. The absence of central authority in Sana' will create an opportunity too hard to resist for al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its charismatic American-born leader, Anwar al-'Awlaqi. Unfortunately, AQAP may be in the best position to seize a leadership role in the country.

If AQAP emerges as the key power broker in the country, Yemen may become what Afghanistan was prior to the American invasion in 2001. The mountainous country could be the new home base of al-Qa'idah and an expanded venue for its training camps. Most of the recent attacks on the United States have had origins in Yemen.

The emergence of Yemen as an al-Qa'idah stronghold does not come as a surprise to most Middle East observers. Yemen's commitment to its supposed alliance with the United States and to the global war on terror is sketchy at best. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the organization responsible for military operations in the region, has tried to establish a close relationship and partnership with the Yemeni military for the last 30 years. It has not always been successful or even useful.

In the late 1980's, CENTCOM floated the idea of establishing its headquarters, or at least a forward headquarters, in Yemen. Thankfully, saner heads at the Department of Defense prevailed and the idea was shelved. Yemen does not have the security, infrastructure or geopolitical location to serve as the focal point for American military operations in the region.

A short survey of our history with Yemen might be helpful.

- October 2000: The USS Cole was attacked while on a port visit to Aden, killing 17 American sailors.

- February 2006: Twenty three al-Qa'idah prisoners escaped from a Yemeni maximum security prison. Included in the 23 escapees were Jamal al-Badawi, the mastermind of the attack on the USS Cole, and Jabr al-Banah, an American citizen wanted in New York state for terrorist activities - he is one of the so-called "Lackawanna Six."

- July 2006: A Yemeni court has acquitted 19 suspected al-Qa'idah members, some of whom had confessed to fighting American troops in Iraq. According to the judge, killing Americans in Iraq is not a violation of Yemeni law.

- February 2008: Jabr al-Banah (see February 2006 entry) waltzed into a courtroom in Sana', Yemen, made a brief appearance and departed.

- May 2008: Usamah Bin Ladin ordered his followers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to leave and head for Yemen. Bin Ladin assessed - correctly, in my opinion - that the climate in Yemen is much more conducive venue to base his terrorist operatives and their operations.

- November 5, 2009: U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded 30 others in an attack at Fort Hood, Texas, inspired by Anwar al-'Awlaqi.

- December 25, 2009: Nigerian 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab, trained by AQAP and inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound airliner.

- May 1, 2010: Faysal Shahzad, a Pakistani American inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate a car laden with explosives in New York City's Times Square.

- October 2010: Two air cargo packages were intercepted overseas, reportedly based on information provided by the Saudi intelligence service. The two packages contained explosive devices hidden in printer cartridges and were bound for Jewish facilities in the Chicago area. The packages were discovered on aircraft in the United Kingdom and Dubai (United Arab Emirates); both originated in Yemen.

It seems to me that bin Ladin was correct. After he ordered his followers to relocate to Yemen following defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, al-Qa'idah has been able to mount operations against the United States, albeit with mixed results.

I believe it is a combination of the skills of Anwar al-'Awlaqi and the weak government of 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih that has allowed Yemen to devolve into a terrorist haven. When Salih departs, I fear that al-Qa'idah will be able to be even more effective, unless a strong central government emerges. I am not optimistic.