Yemen’s Problems Go Far Beyond Narrow US Focus on Terror

Yemen’s recent reappearance on the U.S. radar due to its reputation as a safe haven for al-Qaeda has brought more attention to the country of 23 million and its persistent underlying problems – the least of which may be terrorism.

In addition to its terrorism-related issues, which experts say gets some well-deserved attention, Yemen, located on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, faces a slew of security and economic woes that threaten its very existence.

Experts argue that even a resurgent al-Qaeda in Yemen poses less of a security risk to the state than an ongoing secessionist movement in the south and a tribal rebellion in the north.

Furthermore, economic problems exacerbated by dwindling oil resources, an undiversified agricultural sector based on a non-exportable amphetamine-like drug, and a water crisis feed into the discontent in the North and the South – as well as potentially driving recruits into the waiting arms of al-Qaeda, which threatens to establish a safe haven in Yemen.

According to Yemen expert Gregory Johnson, speaking at a forum this week at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Yemen figured prominently in the U.S.’s war on terror in the three years following the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port city of Aden, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.

By 2003, with most of its leadership dead or in prison, al-Qaeda no longer seemed to pose a threat in Yemen. The battle was considered won.

"There was an interlude of a little over two years in which it appeared as though al-Qaeda in Yemen had been largely defeated," said Johnson. "But instead of securing the win, both the U.S. and Yemeni governments treated the victory as absolute, failing to realize that in this case, a defeated enemy was not a vanquished one."

"In effect, al-Qaeda was crossed off both countries’ lists of priorities and replaced by other, seemingly more pressing concerns," he said.

In February 2006, Yemen again became a focus of counterterrorism specialists when 23 al-Qaeda suspects, including those believed responsible for the USS Cole bombing, escaped from prison.

The prisoners, who were being held at Political Security Central Prison in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, escaped by crafting a tunnel, which ran from their cells to a mosque adjacent to the prison, with help from co-conspirators on the outside.

Among the escapees was Nasir al-Wahishi, a 33-year-old Yemeni who is currently the head of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Subsequent to the escape, al-Qaeda has launched several successful attacks on Yemen’s energy infrastructure, attacked the U.S. Embassy and killed a number of Westerners in Yemen.

Shari Villarosa, an official in the State Department’s Office for the Coordinator of Counterterrorism also on the panel at Carnegie, made it clear that Yemen is now firmly back on the U.S. government’s radar.

"The security situation in Yemen has deteriorated significantly. Al-Qaeda is on the rise in terms of its attacks on the population, its merger with the Saudi parts to become al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," she said. "As a result, with Yemen’s geographical location, its lack of economic development and weak governmental institutions, we worry about Yemen becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda."

However, for all the havoc that it has wreaked in Yemen in recent years, al-Qaeda is not the Yemeni government’s biggest security concern.

The government, headed by President Ali Abdallah Salih since North and South Yemen merged in 1990, faces an ongoing secessionist movement in the south of the country and a violent rebellion by the powerful al-Houthi tribe in the north, both of which constitute graver security threats to Salih’s government than al-Qaeda.

"The threats from the south, these are threats that, I think, threaten to rip the country apart in a way that al-Qaeda doesn’t," said Johnsen. "Despite my talk and despite the fact that I argue that al -Qaeda’s stronger now than it has ever been in the past, this doesn’t mean that al-Qaeda is challenging the state for rule."

Indeed, the south of Yemen has been in turmoil since the beginning of July with protests and demonstrations commemorating the 1994 Yemeni Civil War.

The war, which pitted southern secessionists against government forces, ended with the government forces entering and subduing the southern city of Aden on Jul. 7, 1994.

Calls for secession have increased recently as economic reforms have failed to improve quality of life in the impoverished country.

The list of problems facing Yemen is overwhelming. The Yemeni Army has been involved in sporadic fighting with the al-Houthi tribe since 2004, when the army killed Sheikh Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Al-Houthi was a religious leader of Zaidis, a branch of Shi’a Islam that makes up a large percentage of the population of northern Yemen.

In addition to its security problems, Yemen faces a long list of economic woes. The majority of Yemen’s budget comes from oil exports. However, these reserves are rapidly dwindling and Yemen is expected to become a net importer of oil within the next decade.

Yemen’s largest cash crop is qat, a shrub that contains an amphetamine like substance. It is widely consumed in Yemen, but isn’t a viable export product because it is illegal nearly everywhere. Efforts have been made to develop Yemen’s agricultural sector, but farmers are reluctant to switch from qat to other crops, as qat remains the most profitable use of farmland.

Also compounding these issues is a water crisis that some to say deplete Yemen’s water resources within the next decade. The water crisis is exascerbated by Yemen’s 3.3 percent population growth, one of the highest in the world.

Though plentiful and all grave in their own regard, Yemen’s problems are all interrelated – a point some experts think U.S. policy has missed with its shortsighted focus on terrorism.

The U.S. may be primarily concerned with fighting the resurgence of al-Qaeda, but that doesn’t allow for ignoring Yemen’s economic woes.

"Al-Qaeda has learned that the more chaotic Yemen is, the better it is for al-Qaeda," said Johnsen. "And Yemen is in extremely bad shape."

As long as Yemen’s economic woes persist, al-Qaeda will have little difficulty pushing their narrative and finding new recruits amongst Yemen’s increasingly young and increasingly desperate population.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jared Levy

Jared Levy writes for Inter Press Service.