Countering the Threat from Yemen

The reemergence of Yemen as a terror risk to the United States underscores the difficulties in combating al-Qaeda in weak states, says CFR’s Richard A. Falkenrath.

November 08, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Middle East and North Africa

Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the prime suspect in the recent plot involving explosives sent on cargo planes from Yemen to Chicago. This places a country that just a few years ago was considered "low risk" back in the forefront of U.S. counterterrorism concerns, says Richard Falkenrath, a CFR adjunct senior fellow and former deputy commissioner for counterterrorism with the New York City Police Department. That risk has reemerged, says Falkenrath, for reasons including the escape of twenty-three al-Qaeda members from a prison in Sanaa several years ago, and Yemen’s dangerous mix of poverty, weak government and tribal allegiances. Falkenrath says Yemen is now an operational theater for the United States, and that while "fixing the society so that it’s not a fertile ground for al-Qaeda" is desirable, U.S. efforts should be focused on finding and eliminating al-Qaeda cells and operatives.

During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Yemen was very much on the U.S. radar in terms of counterterrorism strategy. Did Washington take its eye off the ball there?

Everyone always knew that Yemen was a very high-risk area. But by the mid-2000s, the assumption was that there was low risk that an international terrorist plot would be projected against the United States or U.S. allies from Yemen, and that the problems there were predominantly problems for Yemen or for the Arabian Peninsula. That assumption clearly fell apart in 2007, 2008.

Some trace the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Yemen to a jailbreak in 2006, when twenty-three al-Qaeda suspects escaped from a maximum security prison in Sanaa.

The jailbreak was very bad. There are questions about whether some part of the Yemeni government was actually complicit in this. A number of terrorists, both Saudi and Yemeni, were freed in that jailbreak. Many, if not all of them, quickly went back and formed the cell that we now call al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, a number of individuals who had been incarcerated in Guantanamo were released to Yemen, some fraction of whom went off and joined up with AQAP as well.

What are the factors--regional, political, whatever--that are allowing AQAP to emerge so strongly in Yemen?

The first is the changing dynamic between Saudi security enforcement and Yemeni security enforcement. Saudi Arabia previously had been a state in which al-Qaeda could operate relatively easily. That changed around 2004, 2005, when Saudi security services really began a huge crackdown on al-Qaeda operatives in their country. What that did was push the focus of activity to Yemen, which was a less dangerous place for al-Qaeda and its affiliates to live and operate, but also provided staging grounds for attacks into Saudi Arabia, which at the time and still today remains a pretty high priority.

So the government is distracted by a terrible economy, excessive social problems, and the conflicts in both north and south, leaving room for al-Qaeda to sort of slip through the cracks and exist among certain members of Yemeni society.

Another factor is that Yemen is a very poor and illiterate state with a weak government that is preoccupied by two separate conflicts, one in the north and one in the south. The one in the south is predominantly ethnic, and the one in the north is predominantly territorial. So the government in Sanaa is distracted with some significant problems: a terrible economy, excessive social problems, and the conflicts in both north and south, leaving room for al-Qaeda to sort of slip through the cracks and exist among certain members of Yemeni society.

Finally, in many parts of Yemen, people owe allegiance to a tribe or ethnic group over the state. So if a particular tribe is sympathetic to al-Qaeda individuals there, they will provide them sanctuary.

How does the United States even begin to address some of these issues to make Yemen less hospitable for AQAP?

As an operational theater, Yemen is very active. The United States has extensive military and intelligence overhead operations there. Substantial sums of money have been provided to the Yemeni government to develop their own intelligence and security capabilities internally, but the U.S. government does still operate unilaterally from time to time. There are ships offshore that have the ability to launch strikes against targets when they’re identified. There are unmanned aerial vehicles flying overhead, some of which are armed. The larger problem--about fixing this country and making it a place that isn’t a de facto sanctuary for al-Qaeda and AQAP--I don’t think that objective has really been seriously embraced by the U.S. government. There is some assistance that goes on, but nobody is kidding themselves and thinking that we’re about to turn Yemen into Switzerland.

In an interview with CFR earlier this year you noted that the key to security isn’t preparedness but prevention. Should we be doing more to prevent AQAP from thriving in Yemen?

The focus of my remarks was really on the operational activity: intelligence, military and counterterrorism actions. That’s really what I’m referring to with prevention. In terms of fixing the society so that it’s not a fertile ground for al-Qaeda, that’s desirable [but] I somewhat doubt the practicality of doing that, it’s a profoundly expensive task. So yes, we’d like for Yemen to get on a better path of development, and internal political stability would bring better law and order. There are long-term, slow-working programs, both unilaterally with the U.S. and multilaterally with the World Bank and others, to try to accomplish that. But it’s a long road, and to the extent that we’re worried about counterterrorism, we need to focus on the immediate task at hand, which is finding these cells and operatives and either killing or arresting them.

To the extent that we’re worried about counterterrorism, we need to focus on the immediate task at hand, which is finding these cells and operatives and either killing or arresting them.

If you were writing the counterterrorism script for the United States, what would be the first five items that you’d have on it?

It’s funny you ask me this. I deliberately have not gotten involved in the counterterrorism debate. I’ll just give you an example from NYPD, where I was deputy commissioner of counterterrorism. My counterpart at Scotland Yard was directly involved in some cases of counter-radicalization in the United Kingdom. They would go out and have meetings. They would try to co-opt nonviolent extremists and get them involved to help ensure that mostly young men in their communities didn’t embark on this course.

At the NYPD, Commissioner Ray Kelly made a very clear decision that he was not going to ask his counter\terrorism deputy commissioner to do this. He would rely on a normal community affairs function to do it--to do all the outreach to all the different communities--and would not brand it as driven by a fear of terrorism or counter-radicalization.

There’s actually a lot to that, in the sense that, if I were to start showing up at community meetings with particular groups--Muslim or whatever--it immediately stigmatizes the interaction. [Members of these groups could ask:] "So why are you here? And why aren’t you talking to the Irish guys? You’re talking only to the Muslims." It sends a message that we didn’t think was healthy. So this is a long-winded of saying that throughout my career I’ve actually stayed away from this.

Still, what I would do first is ensure that the social science on radicalization is getting better. I have to say that to date, the scholarship on radicalization--the essential prerequisite of a counter-radicalization agenda--is highly uncertain. There are some basic sorts of typologies that have been created to describe the steps in the [radicalization] process, but a deep understanding of what’s actually happening in the hearts and minds of these people so far eludes us.

How could you get at that?

Probably the most important thing would be close-in interviews with radicals. We now have a lot of them in custody. Some of them will talk. Some of them won’t. Some of them will continue to press their agenda and won’t be candid. So it’s not easy to do. But this is really what I want the analytic, academic community to develop for us. Either in the public space through universities, but more likely in classified settings with scholars and experts at the national counterterrorism center, the CIA, the FBI, or, frankly, NYPD.

Could anything have been done to prevent the recent bomb effort from happening?

If we had found the actual location where they were building these bombs before they delivered them to UPS or FedEx, we could have raided it or we could have blown it up with a missile. That would have prevented it. If we had done a raid, we could have arrested the bomb-makers, interrogated them, find out what else they were up to. So that’s one aspect of prevention.

The other aspect, which is a little bit harder, is if we had some national or global mandate that parcels emanating from certain countries or meeting certain criteria were screened, and the people receiving them at UPS or FedEx would have to run them through an X-ray, or whatever it may be, and they may have spotted it. But there are ways to defeat the various technological screening systems that we have. It’s a complicated business. It’s essentially U.S. government agencies that do it for civil aviation passengers. To impose that requirement on parcel carriers operating globally is a big deal. It may happen as a result of this, but I’m not sure. It would need to be quite carefully thought through.