On October 29th, two packages containing plastic explosives concealed in ink toner cartridges were discovered on cargo planes bound from Yemen to the United States during scheduled stop-overs in London and Dubai. Had the packages not been discovered and defused, anti-terrorist agencies predict that the bombs would have most likely exploded over the United States’ eastern seaboard. A wing of al-Qaeda, known as “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the plot. It may be recalled that the group also claimed responsibility for the failed bomb plot of a Delta/Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25th, 2009 (the so-called “Christmas Day Plot”) and a suicide plot to assassinate the British ambassador to Yemen.
In January 2009, al Qaeda consolidated its Saudi and Yemeni branches in the Peninsula under the leadership of Naser al-Wahishi (alias Abu Basir), a former secretary to Osama bin Laden, who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006. Barely two months later, the group announced its arrival with a suicide attack in the eastern town of Shibam, which killed four South Korean tourists. In August 2009, AQAP attempted to assassinate Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs minister, and member of the Saudi royal family. The consolidation of power under the AQAP umbrella and the leadership of Mr al-Wahishi, Anwar al-Awlaki (a US citizen and al Qaeda’s senior recruiter and trainer) and Said Ali al-Shihri (a former Guantanamo detainee, who was active in Afghanistan and Pakistan) gave al-Qaeda renewed focus and potency. By 2010, US State Department officials were terming AQAP as the single-largest threat to the United States, outside Afghanistan-Pakistan.
Al Qaeda, of course, has had a historical presence in the tribal provinces of Yemen. Osama bin Laden, though born in Riyadh, belongs to a branch of the Kidnah tribe of the Hadhramaut region in eastern Yemen, from where Mr bin Laden’s father emigrated. Yemen stands out from the other countries in the Peninsula as the least developed economically, with a high unemployment rate (35 per cent, 2009) and a per capita income roughly one-tenth that of Saudi Arabia’s. Its post-colonial history is marred in conflict — inter-tribal confrontations, a coup d’etat, support to a rebellion in neighboring Oman, and two civil wars. In many ways, Yemen mirrors Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, with its rugged, mountainous terrain, general security vacuum, and low levels of economic development. Rather unsurprisingly therefore, Yemen provided conditions ideal for al-Qaeda to promulgate its regional campaign for jihad. It served as al-Qaeda’s base for the first attack on Western targets in 1992; a bombing of a hotel used by US troops in Aden, which resulted in two civilian deaths. Its next attack in 2000, off the coast of Aden, killed 17 US sailors aboard the USS Cole.
Several factors have contributed to the re-emergence of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Earlier this year, US counter-terrorism operations, though successful, were suspended due to criticism following an errant drone assault which led to the death of Jabir al-Shabwani, a deputy governor and mediator, in Maarib province. Also, the continued US focus on disrupting al-Qaeda’s ability to plan and execute operations from Afghanistan-Pakistan allowed the group’s peninsular assets to use the opportunity to quietly regroup and grow in strength in Yemen. Further, Saudi Arabia’s own battle against the terrorist group also led to several of its members escaping to Yemen through the country’s porous borders with the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s initiatives to rehabilitate “enemy combatants” from Guantanamo Bay have also met with limited success, since several of the “rehabilitated” jihadis have rejoined the ranks of AQAP in Yemen instead. One such beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation programme was Jabir Jubran al-Fayfi, who returned to assist AQAP in its jihad and rose in stature in AQAP. He had previously participated in the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. According to Long War Journal, it is likely that Mr al-Fayfi fought the Indian army in Kashmir under the banner of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a terrorist group linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
AQAP today is the single largest al-Qaeda “chapter” in the world. Its efforts at attacking the West have been unsuccessful thus far, but the United States cannot continue to ignore the possibility that such a threat might materialise in the future. But what are Washington’s options today, burdened as it is with a weak economy and two hugely unpopular wars? The good news for the United States is despite its complicated relationship with the government in Sana’a, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president, both recognises the threat posed by AQAP and desires to deny them ground in his country. The tenuous political and economic environment in the country, however, constrains Yemeni armed forces from being effective against AQAP. Earlier this year, the US Central Command (Centcom) proposed $1.2 billion in aid to Yemen and the deployment of US advisers in non-combat roles.
However military aid, without an equitable disbursement of non-military aid for economic and societal development will not end Washington’s predicament in Yemen. Today, many in the Obama administration complain that aid money provided to combat AQAP has instead been diverted by President Saleh’s government to secure its own indispensability. While the Obama administration’s concerns are certainly valid, President Saleh can hardly be expected to dedicate the full strength of his armed forces to countering AQAP at a time when his government faces existential threats from several sectarian and tribal rebellions.
Therefore, Yemen must be assisted in both countering AQAP and alleviating its sectarian and tribal pressure points. To that end, the United States must enlist the region’s most powerful actor, Saudi Arabia, which enjoys considerable influence in Yemen’s northern tribal regions and in Sana’a, to gradually work towards a ceasefire with tribal rebels, and deny sanctuaries to AQAP in the country. Finally, the US must also revisit its decision to suspend drone operations in country. Attempts at correlating drone operations in Yemen to the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Yemenis are misplaced. Among the many factors that rightly or wrongly inflame antipathy towards the United States in the region, drone operations fall very low in the order. However, continued suspension of US drone operations will likely provide AQAP space for strategic planning, recruitment and training, and a base to plan future attacks on Western assets in the region and beyond. And this is something the US and the West can ill-afford.