The Candid Eye

January 24, 2010

Yemen – the next Afghanistan?

As a country where weapons outnumber people, half the population is illiterate, close to a quarter of them cannot find work and internecine fighting is forcing thousands from their homes, Yemen has become fertile ground for jihadis looking to take up the mantle of Osama Bin Laden.

Stretched around the southern heel of the Arabian peninsula and home to 24 million people , it is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Long a source of jihadis, the country sent tens of thousands of fighters to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

To judge by the number of Yemenis captured, killed or identified as insurgents in Iraq, it continues to be one of the biggest suppliers of fighters to regional conflicts. It is common knowledge in the tearooms of Sana’a , the capital, and in Western embassies that the government of northern Yemen used jihadis to help defeat the south in the civil war that ended in 1994.

But the symbiotic relationship between the Yemeni government and al-Qaida shifted after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq. The government was worried that it might be on the receiving end of US military action, so it helped Washington with the assassination of an al-Qaida leader by missile attack from a Predator drone in 2002. At the same time, it turned a blind eye to other extremists as long as they didn’t cause trouble.

Yemen Map

In 2006, several extremists to tunnelled their way out of prison amid reports of collusion between officials and militants. The result is that al-Qaida are now back in Yemen in significant numbers and the organisation is flourishing in a society already overwhelmed with myriad crushing social and security problems. Into this morass has waded al-Qaida . Of particular concern to Western intelligence agencies is the composition of the group’s leadership in Yemen.

Saed Ali al-Shihri , a Saudi national, spent six years as prisoner number 372 at the US-run Guantanamo detention centre in Cuba after being captured on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2001. In 2007, he was released into the custody of the Saudi government’s “deradicalisation” programme for terrorists, which offered psychological counselling, classes in more moderate Islam and art therapy. The Saudis boasted that the programme had an 80 per cent success rate.

But according to US sources, al-Shihri spent just six weeks at the rehab. Within days of his release in 2008, he crossed the border into Yemen and began putting into place the building blocks for a new organisation, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the botched suicide bomb attack on a Detroitbound plane on Christmas Day last year.

Yemeni Terrorists have links with Al-Shabaab : Image Courtesy -

AQAP has been steadily building its capabilities . US state department officials acknowledge that the US has limited resources for Yemen, though given the intense scrutiny focused on the country, those numbers could rise. But they question whether more aid money would be used effectively, given the pervasive corruption there. They also say the US has to be realistic about what can be done in Yemen, given a long list of problems, including a water shortage , dwindling oil reserves and secessionist movements in the south, a major insurgency in the north and a growing young population with no jobs. This week, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton came close to labelling Yemen a lost cause. “In countries that are incubators of extremism, like Yemen,” she said, “the odds are long. But the cost of doing nothing is potentially far greater.” The biggest hurdle may be Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. While US officials said he appeared determined to root out al-Qaida elements, his resolve has wavered over time, depending on his calculation of whether radical Islamists are a threat or benefit to him.

Saleh is also worried about being too closely identified with the US. “He hasn’t always been eager for American support,” a senior administration official said of Saleh. “That’s all the more reason to wrap this in broader international support . That makes it easier politically for him.”

Ali al-Ahmed , director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, believes Yemen has now become the third-largest haven for al-Qaida , and the group there is perhaps the most stable when compared with units in Iraq and south Asia. “The operating al-Qaida group in Yemen now is really the most comfortable and it’s probably the best funded,” he said. “It’s not the best trained, and it doesn’t have the best talent – that’s why it hasn’t been able to mount successful attacks. But it will come around in the coming years, and it will become a major threat.”

With Yemen apparently on the verge of becoming the world’s next failed state and a regional base for al-Qaida , a series of US-assisted air and ground assaults have shaken up pockets of the country but, according to experts, the action may not help. The US has been growing very concerned about al-Qaida in recent years, but it seems as though it is coming rather late to the party,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, who contends that the attacks could ultimately prove counterproductive because of the civilian casualties involved.

Indeed, the strikes have started to look like more a boon for Yemen’s al-Qaida revival. “The Qaida threat in Yemen is real, but now after this operation in Detroit and the American-backed bombings of tribal lands to root out so-called terrorists, it will be greater,” said Mohammed Quhtan, of Yemen’s opposition Islamist al-Islah party. “Al-Qaida will be able to recruit a lot more young people, at least from the tribes that were hit. And it will have reasonable grounds to attract more people from Abyan governorate, and from the Yemeni population in general.”

That is a frightening prospect for a country on the brink of collapse. “Yemen is fast becoming the Pakistan and Afghanistan in the heart of the Arab world,” one western official in Sana’a said. “You have military and government collusion with al-Qaida , peace agreements, budding terror camps, and the export of jihad to neighbouring countries. We have all seen this road map before.”

Source: TOI

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