Terrorism in Yemen Rediscovered

There Is No Single Central Front in the War Against Al Qaeda

Recent events serve as a reminder that there is no single central front in the war against Al Qaeda and that America needs to remain vigilant on multiple fronts, writes Brian Katulis.

A Yemeni anti-terrorism soldier performs a shooting exercise in the Sarif region, on the outskirts of the Yemeni Capital San'a. (AP)
A Yemeni anti-terrorism soldier performs a shooting exercise in the Sarif region, on the outskirts of the Yemeni Capital San'a. (AP)

America’s attention deficit disorder-afflicted media spent the last week rediscovering Yemen as a country of serious concern for global security. The renewed attention on Yemen, resulting from the failed Christmas Day airline bombing attempt in Detroit, reminds us that terror networks adapt and can quickly defy conventional military responses like troop surges in Afghanistan and Iraq by migrating around the world.

Top newspapers have sent correspondents into Yemen, and last night, ABC’s “World News Tonight” program led with a story quoting an expert saying that Yemen is a “near perfect haven” for terrorists. The fact that leading news organizations still perpetuate the “safe haven” myth, even as a number of terrorism experts and analysts have noted the flaws and fallacies of “safe haven” arguments, is astounding. The most important preparations for the 9/11 attacks took place in Germany and flight schools in the United States. Stateless terror networks can be just as lethal when they use our own territory or countries as a base—even with strong law enforcement and intelligence organizations operating in those areas. The sooner our country understands that, the quicker we’ll adapt our thinking to make our country safer.

It is nonetheless useful to be reminded that Afghanistan and Pakistan aren’t the only countries posing global security threats. Yemen is likely to remain in focus for at least the coming weeks with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s announcing an international summit on January 28 in London to discuss the problems posed by Yemen.

Terrorism in Yemen has been a problem for decades—a quick look back at the State Department’s annual terrorism reports in 1992 and 1993 shows that groups have attacked American and other Western targets, including an attack that resulted in the first Bush administration’s decision to remove U.S. military personnel billeted in the southern city of Aden to support airlift operations for Operation Rescue in Somalia.

Then there’s the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden’s harbor, which killed 17 U.S sailors—and tragically Johaan Gookol, a sailor injured in the attack died over the past holiday season from injuries suffered in the attack. The United States killed a top Al Qaeda leader suspected of involvement in the USS Cole attack, Abu Ali al-Harithi, in a Predator drone strike in 2002 that also killed five others, including a U.S. citizen—long before unmanned aerial drone strikes were being used on an almost weekly basis as they are now in Pakistan.

From 2002 to 2009, the United States lost its focus and had its attention diverted to other issues—especially Iraq, which was an unnecessary diversion from finishing the mission in Afghanistan as well as dealing with problems such as Yemen. In 2003 and 2006, a couple of prominent escapes from Yemeni prisons by terror suspects—escapes I noted in this 2007 post—weren’t enough to put Yemen higher on the priority list. And the Bush administration’s mistakes in Iraq strengthened Al Qaeda affiliates who used Iraq as a training ground—as my colleague Matt Duss notes, these “other sons of Iraq,” the next generation of Al Qaeda terrorists—honed their skills and have now returned to places like Yemen.

Yemen garnered renewed attention at the end of last year, after signs that Nidal Hassan, the alleged murderer in the Fort Hood shootings, had contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamist cleric now based in Yemen. And Sudarsan Raghavan reports in this morning’s Washington Post that a number of other top Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden’s former spiritual advisor, have migrated to Yemen.

The day before the attempted airline bombing in Detroit, Yemeni forces, with support from the United States, attacked a meeting of senior Al Qaeda leaders. Kinetic operations like these are essential and will continue. But in order to advance stability in Yemen, it will be just as vital to put forward a comprehensive approach aimed at building Yemen’s law enforcement and judicial institutions, as well as advancing economic development.

I traveled to Yemen and interviewed dozens of government officials, academics, and analysts in 2003, and produced this report outlining the governance and rule of law challenges in Yemen. Rereading this report in my own rediscovery of Yemen last week, I was struck by how little the situation in Yemen had progressed. Smart analysts such as Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine at the Center for a New American Security have recently highlighted Yemen’s long list of challenges, including economic development after the country runs out of oil, and they also rightly note U.S. policy alone cannot determine the outcomes.

The London conference at the end of this month serves as an opportunity to develop a comprehensive sustainable security strategy for Yemen—one that helps Yemen strengthen its institutions and advance the rule of law in order to deal with the threat posed by terrorists, as well as advance stability in the country by promoting economic development. The long list of challenges in Yemen means that there are no quick fix solutions, but America can’t afford to let Yemen fall from the agenda once again.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow