Political turmoil is making an already poor and deeply divided Yemen prime breeding ground for terrorism. CIA officials warned the country’s al-Qaida affiliate is growing stronger despite claims the terrorist network’s demise is “within reach.”
Al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate declared its loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s replacement, Egyptian-born doctor Ayman al-Zawahri, last week, further confirming experts’ long-held opinion that, “Yemen is the new Afghanistan.”
The Yemeni group AQAP -- Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- posted a 10-minute audio message on extremist websites vowing to continue fighting against corrupt Western-backed leaders.
The news came more than two weeks after new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared the United States is "within reach" of "strategically defeating" al-Qaida as a terrorist threat. However, senior CIA officials also warned that its Yemen affiliate is growing fast and has become the most dangerous.
The United States estimates there are 300 members of AQAP in Yemen with links to several attempted attacks on U.S. targets. These include two bomb parcels found en route from Yemen to Chicago in 2010 and a plot to bomb a Detroit-bound plane in 2009.
Yemen is the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home and the location of one of the group's first attacks in 1998.
Failed states make it easy to hide and train militants
Located on the Arabian Peninsula and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, Yemen is a poor and divided country with three quarters of the population still living in rural areas.
Jennifer Steil, a former American editor of the Yemen Observer, wrote that Yemeni people are living exactly like their ancestors thousands of years ago: herding goats and cows, growing wheat, traveling long distances for water, living in square mud-brick homes.
Yemen is considered one of the least developed countries by the United Nations and the poorest country in the Arab world. Forty-five percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.
The majority of these people live above Yemen’s oil and gas fields. But instead of building roads and schools, the oil and gas money is lost in corruption and kickbacks worth billions of dollars to keep people loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and buy off tribal leaders, according to Steil.
Tribes rule the countryside
One key to al-Qaida’s influence in Yemen is support from several tribal members. Edmund J. Hull, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, wrote that al-Qaida receives this support because the terrorism group is able to successfully exploit opportunities created by government neglect. For example, in a country where illiteracy is an issue -- only 73 percent of males and 35 percent of females can read -- al-Qaida offers Yemeni people what the government sometimes can’t: schools.
Other factors are strong family ties and the “mujahedeen fraternity” -- Yemenis with fighting experience abroad. But perhaps most important in provoking loyalty to al-Qaida, wrote Hull, are innocent casualties in the war on terror -- family, friends and neighbors killed in counterterrorism operations.
As democratic uprisings spread across the Middle East, the example of the Tunisian revolution provoked mass demonstrations against President Saleh in January.
Thousands of protestors took to the streets to rally against unemployment, economic conditions and corruption, and to call for President Saleh to resign. Police cracked down on the demonstrations in Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa, and seaport cities such as Aden resulting in several causalities.
Al-Qaida saw the president’s unpopularity as an opening and took control of at least two towns and surrounding territory in the country’s south, forcing more than 100,000 people to flee the area.
Meanwhile, President Saleh, who has been a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida, has turned the military’s focus from global counterterrorism to protecting the regime.
--Compiled by Rani Robelus for NewsHour Extra