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A Fraying Yemen's Terrorism Problem

Interviewee: Christopher Boucek, Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
December 29, 2009

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The Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day reportedly received weapons training in Yemen, and the al-Qaeda affiliate there has claimed responsibility (AP). Yemen analyst Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, if confirmed, these latest developments in the country pose a serious challenge to U.S. and regional security efforts. For one, plotting against targets on U.S. soil represents an expansion of the al-Qaeda affiliate's ambitions, he says. The terror group's rise occurs at a time of growing security and economic challenges besetting Yemen's central government--from civil war to a shortage of oil and water. If left unchecked, Boucek says, conditions may ripen for al-Qaeda's further entrenchment in Yemen.

How significant is this airline plot for U.S. and regional security concerns?

I've seen the reports that suggest that this Nigerian suspect had been trained, or received training or the equipment, inside Yemen. That still has yet to be conclusively determined one way or another. There has been some reporting, though, that's very disturbing that the explosive compound seems to be very similar to the explosive that was used in the attempted assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi counterterrorism chief, in August of this year. After that attack, there were stories coming out of Yemen from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claiming that they had an undetectable device with which to do further attacks and there's been some discussion of whether or not this included aviation targets. If all these sort of things come together, what we see on the Northwest flight sort of tracks what had been happening. If this turns out to all be correct, this will be the first time we've seen al-Qaeda from Yemen reaching into an American domestic target, possibly with the same explosive experimental stuff they had been using previously.

Who is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

In January of this year, the al-Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged into one regional organization, now known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, under the leadership of a Yemeni national, Nasser al-Wahishi, and his deputy Saeed al-Shihri, a Saudi national who had been repatriated from Guantanamo Bay. What we see matches and tracks with what we see of the regionalization of al-Qaeda; you have al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for North Africa and now you have al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula dealing with the peninsula as well as the horn of Africa. There's definitely a regional approach to this. There have been attacks inside Yemen--just within the past few months there were several counterterrorism investigators who were assassinated in Hadhramaut in Yemen. The chief investigator in Marib province was kidnapped and executed. There were Western aid workers who were kidnapped in June; some Europeans and South Koreans were kidnapped. Earlier in March, there was a suicide bombing against tourists in Hadhramaut, South Korean tourists, which was followed several weeks later by a suicide bombing inside Sana'a against the car of the South Korean investigator and family.

The U.S.-Yemeni relationship [has been] all about security, and it's been primarily about the United States saying, 'These are our security concerns and this is what you need to do to address them.'

But there's [also] been a series of incidents outside of Yemen, specifically in Saudi Arabia. In April of this year, the Saudis announced that they had intercepted about thirty-five suicide vests that were coming into the country. They announced the discovery of a series of hideouts along the border where it was believed people were going to be abducted and videotaped for propaganda purposes. In August, there was the assassination attempt against Prince Mohammed. And then in October, two Saudi nationals were killed crossing the border, including the brother of the deputy commander of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who also had returned from Guantanamo Bay.

Is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula closely connected to al-Qaeda Central in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

We don't see a direct command-and-control relationship. There have been reports for about the last six months saying that there have been al-Qaeda operatives fleeing Pakistan and the Tribal Belt in Pakistan and Afghanistan--leaving [and] fleeing to Yemen and Somalia. This is what's been reported in the media, that there are more and more people who are fleeing and going toward Yemen, and that's been a concern for a while. The idea that you can have a safe haven on the Arabian Peninsula with which to mount these operations is extremely worrisome.

In 2003, al-Qaeda in Yemen was considered nearly defeated. How did this regional al-Qaeda affiliate revive in just a few years?

There [was] early support and early cooperation between the United States and Yemen [in 2003], where especially Yemen was very concerned that if it did not get on the right side of this conflict, bad things would result. The Yemenis were very keen to come out and be very supportive. The U.S.-Yemeni relationship, however, has been all about security, and it's been primarily about the United States saying, "These are our security concerns, and this is what you need to do to address them." It's been a very one-way dialogue, and this has not been the best way to engage the Yemenis in dealing with issues that are of concern to us, because the Yemenis have a series of issues that are of concern to them, like the civil war in Saada or the southern secessionist movement or other things that are much greater priorities. Al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism has not been a first-order concern for the Yemeni government. We're talking about a regime with limited resources, limited state capacity, and they're focused on the issues that are the most concerning to them.

There are significant regional concerns as well, right?

First and foremost, Yemen's problems won't stay in Yemen. And the most pressing [problems] are probably not terrorism or security-related. The most pressing concerns in Yemen have to do with human security issues like a failing economy--over 80 percent of the state's income comes from the sale of hydrocarbons, and they're running out of oil. On top of that, there's no planning for when the oil runs out. They talk about natural gas, but it will be some [time] before natural gas comes online and it will also not fully replace oil sales. The country's rapidly running out of water, so if running out of oil is bad for the economy, running out of water is a game changer. Sana'a will be the first capital in modern history to run out of water, because the water table falls several meters per year in some places, and it's an issue that the Yemenis are not capable of addressing on their own.

The fear is that al-Qaeda-aligned or affiliated organizations will make use of these under-governed spaces to plot and plan and train to mount operations inside Yemen and beyond.

In a worst-case scenario, you will see massive population movements when there is no more water to consume. The population is set to double in twenty years to over forty million Yemenis, in thirty years to over sixty million Yemenis. Moreover, all these people cannot be employed inside Yemen. So Yemen will need to become a net labor exporter. If you factor in a failing economy, unemployment that's officially around 35 percent (and probably actually much higher than that), corruption, a lack of resources, [then] the central government does not have the ability or the authority or the legitimacy to provide services or control throughout much of the country. The fear is that al-Qaeda-aligned or affiliated organizations will make use of these under-governed spaces to plot and plan and train to mount operations inside Yemen and beyond.

The U.S-Yemeni relationship is complex, similar to the relationship Washington has with Pakistan. In both Yemen and Pakistan, anti-Americanism is very high. And yet both countries need the United States' help in curbing extremism and rebuilding their economies.

You kind of hit right on it. Having outward American involvement in kinetic operations in Yemen would be probably the last thing you'd want to do because this will feed into the grievances that al-Qaeda is talking about, and it will make the central government weaker. So you want to help the Yemenis do these things by providing the training and the intelligence and the other things like that, and you want to build capacity inside Yemen to do these issues. You'll need to do things like help Yemen develop effective counterterrorism laws so that they can prosecute people for fundraising and other things. You'll need to help reform the prison service so people stay locked up. You need to do things to professionalize the police service to end the harassment and abuse by the police and the security services of the general public. This feeds into these other grievances. You don't want to just securitize the problem. Part of this will be improving and expanding the amount  of foreign aid that goes into Yemen, that's going to be improving and professionalizing the civil service, building capacity within the government to handle some of these issues.

What about the resolve of the central government in Yemen?

The way Yemenis look at international partners is, "How big is your checkbook? What are you doing for me?" They want to know what are you bringing to the table. On the one hand, Yemen has tried to link security and terrorism to a number of problems. They've tried to link the civil war in Saada to international terrorism and al-Qaeda. They've tried to link it to Iran, to Libya, to Hezbollah. It legitimizes what is it they want to be doing. The Yemeni government understands that if it is a priority to the West, they can benefit from foreign assistance and foreign development.

One of the things that Yemeni officials complain about is they get relatively less aid per person than some states in sub-Saharan Africa. They don't understand why, when Yemen is such a pressing priority for the United States and the West. For a number of years, Yemen received hardly any foreign aid from this country, and right now humanitarian assistance is like $20 million a year. That's like a dollar per Yemeni, whereas Pakistan gets billions of dollars.

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