April 3, 2012
By Paul Shea
Yemen is by most analysts definition ‘a failed state’. The country is currently in the midst of one of the more violent Arab Spring movements that having driven its president out in February shows no sign of stopping any time soon. The country is facing infighting among several groups internally and is home to one of the most active wings of Al Qaeda.
The country remains one of the region’s poorest and the only attention it gets from Western powers these days is the occasional, but regular, drone strike aiming at a terrorist training camp or other institution deemed a national security threat. With poverty running rampant, and in the current chaos getting worse, and the bonds of state, never too strong, getting weaker the entire Yemeni society has become a threat to the national security of the United States.
43 alleged Al Qaeda militants were killed in Yemen today after a three day siege with Yemeni forces. In Yemen the group is not simply a series of barely connected splinter groups but an institution willing to hold its own against government force.
To step away from the threat from international terrorism for the moment let’s look at the Yemeni state and how it has been handling the situation inside its country for the last turbulent twelve months. When the ‘Arab Spring’ is mentioned the countries linked to it are usually Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria and even some of those have faded from memory leaving mainly the media blanketing Syria on people’s consciousnesses. Yemen had its revolution directly after Tunisia’s and at the same time as Egypt’s (fomenting in the country as early as January 2012although we did note problems). The country is virtually unknown to most westerners and so apart from a couple of stories the media had to forgo it in favor of the more familiar north African conflicts.Yemen’s civil disobedience resulted in deportations for several journalists meaning the picture inside the country was even less clear. In February of this year after a full year of turmoil the country elected its former Vice President as its new President.
The ‘Arab Spring’ ended similarly in Tunisia and Egypt, allowing the old structures to continue. The only different outcome was in Libya where the state was entirely dismantled and has to built anew. Whether that will work better or worse remains to be seen. Yemen faces distinct problems of its own and has done for years. A civil war in 1994 between north and south has left a strong voice still in the south calling for secession. Another area in the north seeks to secede on the basis of religious difference, that part of the country has a large Shia population. The transitional state of the government after the 2011 risings coupled with a double insurgency from north and south, both seeking to secede, leave a weakened Yemeni state as one of the United States most pivotal allies in the battle to suppress Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda has been active in Yemen for a long time and its active insurgency is only one part of its attack on the country. With a poverty wracked population, an oppressive government and a strong belief in Islam, the country’s youth, 46% are under 15 now, is a ripe harvesting ground for Al Qaeda recruiters.
The lack of governmental control of wide areas of its country leave much room for training camps and the other infrastructure the terrorist organisation needs to carry out its work. The underwear bomber was a Nigerian who traveled to Yemen in order to receive his training to carry out that attack. In September of last year, a day that should go down in history and be remembered, Islamist and United States citizen Anwar Al Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in Yemen. He was part Yemeni and was touted as a possible successor to Bin Laden after his death earlier in 2011. Bin Laden himself wrote, in documents that were uncovered after his assassination, that AQAB, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group thought to be heavily based in Yemen was the future of the organisation.
The United States is facing serious trouble from a new Al Qaeda operating out of Yemen and growing stronger as that country faces many challenges. The white house said yesterday that it would stay out of any internal conflict in Yemen that did not involve al Qaeda leaving the Yemenis to figure it out for themselves. While the US new direction in foreign policy refuses to strengthen nations that are valuable in attacking America’s only dangerous enemy that enemy is recovering and learning.
The Yemeni government won the battle this morning but it is unclear whether they have the strength or leadership to win the war. Meanwhile the country sits at the thinnest part of the red sea and a serious disruption insecurity could cause difficulties in the transport of oil and other goods around the world.