07 Apr 2011
One of the worst-case scenarios looming over the West and moderate Muslims in Arab countries is that extremist groups could hijack the current wave of pro-democracy revolutions or otherwise take advantage of the unrest to expand their footprints and strengthen their operational capabilities. Nowhere are those fears better-founded than in Yemen, where conditions have for years made the country a prime candidate to succeed Afghanistan as a base of operations for al-Qaida.
While an outcome that benefits al-Qaida is far from assured, there are strong reasons to believe this is a plausible scenario and clear factors that would make such an outcome extremely dangerous for the West.
Like Afghanistan in the 1990s, Yemen presents some of the ideal conditions for al-Qaida to establish a major presence. In fact, the country is already home to a few hundred al-Qaida operatives. Unlike Afghanistan, however, Yemen is not located in a remote region of Central Asia. Instead, its geographical position makes it an ideal base from which to create havoc in the region and beyond. Standing at the mouth of the Red Sea, Yemen overlooks a narrow and easy-to-disrupt choke point for maritime commerce between Asia and the Mediterranean. Its location on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula makes it a pivotal point for the flow of goods, including oil, between East and West, as well as for the movement of people and ideology throughout the Middle East. If Yemen became a place where al-Qaida can operate freely, it would present an even greater threat than Afghanistan did, and certainly a far more serious one than Gadhafi's Libya, another country where the West decided to take military action.
Like other popular uprisings in the region, the movement that now seems likely to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in power was ignited by young liberal activists, not by groups seeking Islamic rule, much less Islamic terrorists or their supporters seeking to take over the country. In fact, Twakol Karman, one of the principal organizers of Yemen's uprising, is a woman who heads Women Journalists Without Chains and names U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as her role model.
But the character of the protests has been changing since they started more than two months ago.
The opposition, which already existed and was recognized as a legal political party even before the demonstrations began, is a coalition called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) made up of Yemen's Socialist Party and its Islamist party, Islah. The latter, which had little to do with the movement in its early days, has now taken a leading role. That is a source of great concern for those worried about a rise of Islamists friendly to al-Qaida in Yemen.
One of Islah's top leaders is Abdul Majid al-Zindani, listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government. If Saleh fell and Islah gained power, the country would likely become an attractive refuge for al-Qaida, much like Afghanistan was before Sept. 11.
America and its allies entered Afghanistan in 2001 after that country, under Taliban control, allowed al-Qaida to operate without restrictions, establish training camps and plan the Sept. 11 attacks. As the 10th anniversary of those attacks approaches, al-Qaida has become a very different organization. It is much less centralized, in part because it finds it difficult to operate with the ease it enjoyed in Afghanistan. But that could change if the chaos threatening to engulf Yemen allows the group to significantly expand the foothold it already has in the country.
There is no question that al-Qaida already has a strong presence in Yemen. The country's deep divisions, ideological makeup and extreme poverty have made it a hospitable environment for the group for many years. One of al-Qaida's earliest strikes against the U.S. occurred in Sanaa, the Yemeni port where al-Qaida suicide operatives detonated explosives on the hull of the USS Cole in 2000, killing 17 American sailors. More recently, two recent thwarted attacks originated in the country: the 2009 Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner and the 2010 shipment of explosive-laden ink cartridges placed on planes bound for the United States.
American officials know that Yemen has become one of al-Qaida's largest bases of operations outside the Afghanistan/Pakistan region, and Saleh has managed to effectively exploit Washington's concerns. Under Saleh, the two countries developed a mutually beneficial, if not completely trusting relationship. Saleh managed to extract massive aid from the U.S., which allowed him to more successfully tackle the more pressing threats against his rule -- namely, an insurgency in the North and a separatist movement in the South. In return, Saleh allowed U.S. forces to freely pursue al-Qaida operatives in Yemen's territory.
The U.S. military has launched missile attacks against al-Qaida targets inside Yemen's territory, with Saleh's full acquiescence. One of the secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks has Saleh telling U.S. officials, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." But another shows the level of mistrust Saleh felt toward Washington, when he described Americans to a State Department counterterrorism official as "hot-blooded and hasty when you need us" and "cold-blooded and British when we need you."
For about two months, the Obama administration watched the uprising and tried to stand by Saleh, calling for restraint and reform even as Saleh's repressive state security machine started killing scores of protesters. Saleh did offer programs of reform and even promised to step down after parliamentary elections next year. But the opposition has continued to demand his immediate resignation. In the meantime, the brutality of the anti-protest actions intensified. Now Washington seems to have reached the phase that Saleh described as "cold-blooded and British."
Washington remains extremely concerned about what will happen in Yemen after Saleh. The country has essentially no civil society and no middle class. It is deeply religious and has extremely high levels of illiteracy and poverty. In addition, its small territory already has two separate armed conflicts and an even greater one looming in the near future: Its receding water table could make Yemen the first country to run out of drinking water. Yemen has all the makings of a failed state, the kind of place where al-Qaida thrives. And yet, Washington feels that its support for Saleh has become unsustainable. The regime has lost any veneer of legitimacy, and the protesters seem unstoppable. The U.S. is reportedly sending word that it wants Saleh to leave now.
One recent development may offer the West a path that is, if not ideal, then at least acceptable, although it is far from guaranteed.
Much of Washington's collaboration with Yemen has focused on its military. If the post-Saleh picture in Yemen includes a strong U.S.-friendly military, then the West might still be able to count on the country to push back against al-Qaida.
The possibility for just such a scenario presented itself in late-March, when Yemeni Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar broke with Saleh following a particularly bloody day of government attacks against protesters. Al-Ahmar declared, "According to what I am feeling, and according to the feelings of my fellow commanders and soldiers, I announce our support and our peaceful backing of the youth revolution." The split between al-Ahmar and his backers on one side and Saleh on the other could lead to even more civil conflict and more good news for al-Qaida -- or it could provide Washington with a vehicle for preventing a worst-case scenario from becoming a reality in Yemen.
Source: World Politics Review