July 30, 2011
By Sen. Bob Casey Jr.
Since the beginning of the year, we have seen stories of political transformation across the Middle East in places such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and Syria. Similar unrest has occurred in Yemen, the only Middle Eastern country experiencing a political transition where al-Qaida maintains a vibrant presence.
From the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000 to recent attacks in the last two years, Yemen has been used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the U.S. The implications of the transition in Yemen will have a significant impact on U.S. national security, requiring a deliberate and thoughtful response. This is why I chaired a recent Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing to examine these concerns.
During this period of sweeping change in the Middle East, Yemen often goes overlooked. However, the power vacuum left by President Abdullah Saleh’s evacuation to Saudi Arabia after an assassination attempt in June has led to serious questions over the government’s ability to prevent al-Qaida from gaining a stronghold in the country, as well as broader concerns about the humanitarian and economic crises plaguing Yemen today.
Al-Qaida’s presence in Yemen is not new, but it has grown worrisome. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has been linked to multiple attacks against Americans in recent years. We all remember the foiled Christmas Day bomber attack in 2009, which revealed AQAP’s strategy of direct attacks on the U.S. homeland. And in October, Yemeni terrorists targeted the U.S. homeland with cargo packages containing explosives.
One of these packages was bound for Philadelphia International Airport and could have caused serious harm to Pennsylvanians. As U.S. senator for Pennsylvania, I am committed to ensuring that the Obama administration is doing everything in its power to address this threat to U.S. national security.
Counterterrorism in Yemen must be a central tenet of our national security strategy. But it is clear that our counterterrorism concerns in Yemen are closely intertwined with complex political, economic and developmental challenges, and therefore must be part of a comprehensive policy approach.
First, we need a better understanding of the Yemeni opposition and prospects for democratic reform. Acting President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has a weak power base, and the political opposition appears fractured between a prominent coalition called the Joint Meeting Parties and other influential individuals, such as Ali Mohsen, former commander of the 1st Armored Division, and Sheikh Sadeq al Ahmar, leader of the powerful Al Ahmar family.
Meanwhile, the validity of the recently announced 17-member transitional council, or “shadow government,” remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that a transition process eventually will take place, and the U.S. must be prepared for this post-Saleh government, whatever form it might take.
Second, we must address the serious humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which has only gotten worse as a result of the recent unrest. Yemen is the poorest country in the region, where the average citizen survives on less than $2 a day and one-third of the population is undernourished.
Some predict that Sana’a could be the first capital to run out of water, sometime within the next decade. These conditions can contribute to the development of extremism. While the U.S. cannot solve all of these daunting challenges, we should continue to support efforts that mitigate their potentially devastating impact.
Third, the U.S. and our international partners should develop a long-term strategy on conflict resolution in Yemen. The significant development concerns noted above can exacerbate tensions between and among different armed groups.
In a country rife with tribal conflict, most notably the northern Houthi rebellion and southern secessionist movement, al-Qaida has found safe haven. This is a clear example of why our counterterrorism strategy must have a civilian component. USAID has conducted programs aimed at fighting youth extremism, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our able diplomats must continue to engage with all nonviolent and democratic-oriented elements of society to ensure that we understand and can better react to the aspirations of the Yemeni people.
To achieve the goal of fighting extremism that can breed terrorism, Yemen cannot be viewed through the single lens of counterterrorism. In a country where vast political, security, humanitarian and development challenges continually converge, the U.S. must endeavor to formulate short-term and long-term policies to achieve our core national security goals. I will continue to work on policies that better meet the legitimate needs of the Yemeni people and ultimately combat the threat that al-Qaida poses to the U.S. homeland and to the state of Pennsylvania.
Sen. Bob Casey Jr. is the senior senator from Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.