President Barack Obama has called the war in Iraq a distraction from the real fight in Afghanistan. What is becoming clearer is that even Afghanistan is peripheral when compared to Yemen, which has been the cultural, ideological, and operational center of al-Qaeda from early on, when organized Islamic resistance to American imperialism was in its formative years. Yemen will gain a heightened focus from the United States security apparatus in coming years.
The protests that spilled over into Yemen from the revolutionary fervor in Tunisia and Egypt were really just a continuation of the instability that had been rising there for years. After mass demonstrations led to gun battles between government forces and tribal militias, creating a threat of civil war, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to sign an agreement to relinquish power on three separate occasions.
On June 3, Saleh was wounded in an attack on his palace and moved to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. With his departure, executive authority was delegated to Vice President Abdo Rabu Mansour Hadi and although a seeming majority of Yemenis plus the Obama administration have called for a transition, a spokesperson for Saleh promised his return to the country this week. Violence and instability are ongoing and just last week more than 60 suspected al-Qaeda militants escaped from a jail in the south.
The rising threat level and the understanding that many of the latest attacks or attempted attacks against the United States have had origins in Yemen has prompted the Obama administration to increase a largely secret war there, launching Predator drone strikes in unprecedented numbers. Before Saleh’s departure, the U.S. had been conducting such air strikes regularly while, as diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks revealed, Saleh claimed responsibility for them. In one cable, Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Yemen contains perhaps the greatest concentration of al-Qaeda militants and sympathizers, termed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), than any other front in Obama’s international war to quell such threats. The current unrest and volatile power vacuum has placed it atop the list of U.S. concerns, and it is turning out to be a model for how undeclared wars will manifest largely in the shadows.
Yemen’s geography on the world’s busiest sea lane along the boot of the Arabian Peninsula where it borders oil-rich Saudi Arabia, has made it long the attraction of the world economy and expanding empires. The 1990 unification of North and South Yemen was the result of a bifurcation decided upon in 1904 by the British and Ottoman Empires, which clamored over full control and occupation of the strategically important country.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president since unification, withstanding the tensions that persist because of that political development. Shi’a Muslims make up about 20 percent of the population, despite holding most positions in government and the military. The two predominant tribal confederations, Hashid (to which Saleh belongs) and Bakil determine much of the class system in the economy, which has suffered from about 40 percent unemployment and has most people living on about $3.50 a day.
Persistent economic and political turmoil were overshadowed by the secessionist Houthi Rebellion, named after its founder Husayn al-Houthi, which erupted in 2004 in Sa’da in the far north. Commonly chanting “death to the Israelis, death to the Americans,” the Houthis’ violent uprising drew an even more violent response from President Saleh, who had the help of the Bush administration in aid and weapons due to the Islamist nature of the rebellion and Saleh’s pledge of cooperation in the War on Terror. Increased U.S. support under Obama allowed the ongoing Houthi movement to be harshly quelled with Saleh’s Operation Scorched Earth.
The uprisings that eventually drove President Saleh out of the country have their origins in an onslaught of protests and demonstrations (only some of which turned violent) which began in 2007. Initiated by military officers upset about meager pensions, the demonstrations soon included civil servants, lawyers, teachers and unemployed youths, hitting the streets in large numbers to protest broad issues of political and economic mistreatment. The Arab Spring, spreading from Tunisia and Egypt, boosted the uprisings that have brought Yemen to its current state.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
In part, al-Qaeda can be said to have been born and bred in Yemen. In the 1980s Saudi Arabia recruited a disproportionately high number of Yemeni jihadists to fight in support of the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets. They were revered upon return and built up hatred for Saudi Arabia and the United States in the shadow of the first Gulf War, naming them both enemies of Islam.
Osama bin Laden himself considered Yemen a centerpiece in his global anti-American jihad, with hopes of overthrowing the regime. An al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen known as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army plotted to kill U.S. Marines temporarily transiting through Aden on their way to Somalia as part of Operation Restore hope in December 1992, in what is considered one of the earliest al-Qaeda-endorsed attacks against U.S. personnel.
With a 1998 kidnapping of 12 Western tourists and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden, which killed 17 American sailors, Yemen was recognized as a hotbed of Islamic militants like al-Qaeda. The U.S. paid much greater attention to the rising Islamist activity in Yemen after 9/11, countering ongoing attacks with support for Saleh and targeted drone assassinations, the first of which occurred in 2002 and killed six al-Qaeda members.
The Bush administration began flooding Yemen with money and weapons equipment as well as training Saleh’s security forces in counterterrorism. In 2006, more than $18 million was given, and aid has gradually increased, with the Obama administration requesting over $100 million for both FY2011 and FY2012, despite pleas from humanitarian groups to cut off aid. U.S. support has helped secure Saleh’s acquiescence and cooperation in eliminating terrorist threats and has given the United States an important proxy state on the strategically vital Arabian Peninsula.
Throughout this time, the Yemeni population has become increasingly menaced by the centralizing effect U.S. aid has had on the Saleh dictatorship and by a starved economy to boot. In 2010, Amnesty International reported that the Yemeni government was abandoning human rights in its counter-terrorism efforts, increasingly resorting to repressive and illegal methods, with strong encouragement from Washington.
Rampant anti-American sentiment has swept the nation with various terrorist acts occurring in recent years, most notably the bombing of the U.S. embassy in 2008. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009 and was believed to have been inspired or organized by AQAP or affiliated groups.
When concerns from Washington over the Arab Spring were added to the already tense security concerns in Yemen, the Obama administration was on high alert. Throughout Saleh’s murderous and repressive response to largely peaceful protesters urging legitimate reform—like when more than 50 peaceful protesters were massacred with guns and snipers in Sana’a—the Obama administration was actively supportive. But such support has not provided the suppression and subservience Washington had been aiming for.
A Power Vacuum and a Shadow War
Yemen’s period of transition in the weeks of President Saleh’s absence has been a source of concern. In the scramble to determine who will lead Yemen, both the massive protest movement as well as aggressive U.S. drone attacks have continued almost unabated.
While Vice President Hadi has refused to allow any transition or interim government until Saleh returns, many have speculated about possible changes to the leadership. Saleh has some direct family members in high-ranking seats in the military, like his son Ahmed, whom some have expected to hold the reins. Others suggest that Shaykh Sadiq al-Amhar, who is a member of Saleh’s tribe but came out against him weeks before Saleh’s injury, may be in line. Still others look to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen, who defected from the regime in March to side with the protesters. At the same time, elements of AQAP are working to disrupt a peaceful transition, while popular demonstrations for reform continue.
The Obama administration, following imperial policy very closely, has two primary concerns regarding this chaotic power vacuum in Yemen. On the one hand, allowing things to play out on their own is out of the question because Washington intends to have a dependent regime they can control take Saleh’s place. Washington also intends to continue to engage in and even expand their drone program and covert operations against suspected AQAP militants. The manner in which this undeclared shadow war has been waged thus far has been very deadly and seems to contribute to the anti-American sentiment which ostensibly justifies its implementation.
The nomination of former CIA Director Leon Panetta to secretary of defense, coupled with announcements that the covert war in Yemen will be intensified, portends concentrated violence and hostility for those on the ground. But it also signals an additional all-out war conducted by the Obama administration, the secret nature of which will likely prevent any congressionally imposed limitations on the president’s martial discretion. This was implemented in Pakistan, but the adjacency of the overt war in Afghanistan excused it from marking such a precedent.
Given the centrality of Yemen as a hotbed of Islamic extremists and the unprecedented ability of a unitary executive in America to wage war at will and with total impunity, the fractured Arab country is likely to be the focus of national security policy in coming years. Yemen will be extremely influential not just in the trajectory of its future as an unstable Gulf state with a population yearning for reform, but also as the first American drone war initiated in isolation and kept secret, under the authority of only one man.