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The New Counterterrorism Challenge

Author: Greg Bruno
January 4, 2010


Among the recommendations called for by the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of September 11 was an urgent need for unity of effort in U.S. counterterrorism strategy. Eight years later, the Obama administration is confronting concerns about its ability to coordinate counterterrorism policy after a Nigerian national boarded a plane in Amsterdam--explosives sewn into his underpants--and nearly took down an airliner as it descended into Detroit. Airport security has already been tightened worldwide (AP) and President Barack Obama has vowed to conduct a full accounting of the failed December 25 plot. John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, says the system must be strengthened (MSNBC) to better connect "bits and pieces of information."

Lawmakers and terrorism analysts are already sounding the alarm on Yemen, where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is believed to have received training. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) has said that Yemen could become the site of the next United States ground war (Fox News). Obama has made defeating al-Qaeda his central focus in the war on terrorism abroad; with a robust al-Qaeda presence and a somewhat functional government, Yemen could prove a reliable partner in that fight (CSMonitor).

Others are urging against rushing into Yemen with guns blazing. Writes analyst Marc Lynch on "The yawning gap between the extent of U.S. interests and the resources necessary to make a difference is even greater in Yemen than in Afghanistan." CFR's Micah Zenko shares in the call for calm (Guardian). Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, meanwhile, vowed to support its Yemeni counterparts with reinforcements (al-Jazeera) should the U.S. attack.

The U.S. military is allocating resources to stabilize Yemen. Washington spends roughly $70 million annually on security assistance, a number expected to double by next year (Reuters). And the Pentagon trains counterterrorism police, shares intelligence, and assists in targeted strikes of terrorist camps. But security concerns remain nonetheless. On January 3, U.S. and British officials ordered their embassies shuttered following specific threats (AP) to their personnel, and they were later joined by France. Yemen expert Christopher Boucek tells Western governments must speed up aid to the country or face the prospect of a failed state unable to contain the al-Qaeda threat. The Congressional Research Service says total foreign assistance to Yemen in fiscal year 2009 was only $40 million (PDF), or about eight hours of operations in Afghanistan (The Hill).

The more immediate challenge could revolve around efforts to close Guantanamo Bay, where roughly half of the remaining two hundred inmates are Yemeni nationals. Some members of President Obama's Democratic Party are calling for a halt in efforts to repatriate prisoners from Yemen due to security concerns (AP). A delay in transferring inmates would extend the closing of the camp, and hurt Obama politically.

Additional Analysis

Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen writes in Foreign Policy that 2010 could be the year Yemen "comes apart."

A preview of the New York Times' Sunday magazine offers a look inside President Obama's war on terror.

Homeland Security expert James Jay Carafano offers a presidential to-do list on how to keep terrorists off airplanes.


The International Crisis Group's Joost R. Hiltermann examines Saudi Arabia's war inside Yemen (Foreign Affairs).

The BBC profiles the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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