Whilst there has been much analysis on the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, comparatively little attention has been devoted to the situation in Yemen, where there have been ongoing protests, particularly in the south, against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has announced that he will not seek another term in office. This raises two important questions. What is the present state of Western governments’ policies towards Yemen? How, if at all, should they be changed? These problems are urgent to resolve in light of the active Al-Qaeda insurgency (‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’- AQAP) in the south of the country, which is likely to have been responsible for the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Currently, the main financial backer of Saleh’s government is the US, which has dramatically increased military aid to Yemen since the failed Christmas plot. This aid has effectively been doubled and could well reach $250 million in 2011, excluding the substantial amounts of development aid that will probably increase too. The US also occasionally carries out drone attacks in counter-terrorism operations. Despite such measures, however, the country has become progressively more unstable, as Al-Qaeda now has a well-established foothold in the south, which is itself mostly in the hands of separatist movements that Saleh failed to integrate into the political system after the Yemeni civil war in the 1990s.
One useful way to look into the failures of Western policies in Yemen is through examining the Wikileaks cables, which show that US diplomats were actually well aware of Saleh’s double game of diverting aid to suppress internal opponents. For example, U.S. ambassador Stephen Seche noted in one cable that Saleh was using a commando group (funded and trained by Britain and the US since 2002 to fight Al-Qaeda) and perhaps American Humvees against Houthis. The Houthis are a Shi’a movement in the north of the country that began a revolt in 2004, primarily in opposition to what they regard as discrimination by Saleh’s government against the north in terms of jobs, development and lack of political autonomy. Although Qatar was able to mediate a ceasefire between the Houthis and Saleh’s government back in August, a lasting peace agreement failed to materialise. Seche himself merely protests vainly against what he rightly sees as the Yemeni government’s misuse of US military aid.
Incidentally, the cables dispel the myth that US officials regard Al-Qaeda as being in any sort of alliance with the Houthis. For example, in a meeting in September 2009 with White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, Saleh specifically pressured the US to provide armoured vehicles, airplanes and ambulances for his campaign against the Houthis. Brennan rejected Saleh’s pleas, affirming that ‘the USG [U.S. government] is prohibited by law from providing military support to the [Yemeni government] to be used against the Houthis since the USG considers the group a domestic insurgency’.
Meanwhile, Saleh has been remarkably tolerant of Al-Qaeda figures in Yemen. At lunch with a US envoy in 2007, he openly bragged about having met with Jamal Badawi for a chat only two weeks earlier. Badawi was the chief Al-Qaeda member responsible for orchestrating the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 that killed seventeen people. Though Badawi’s whereabouts are unknown today, it is clear that Saleh has been pursuing a strategy of attempting to co-opt Al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen rather than crack down on them. When one also takes into account the diversion of Western support to crush internal opposition, is it any wonder that Al-Qaeda is so well entrenched in the country, in contrast to an estimate of only 50-100 Al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan?
So what is the best course of action for Western governments vis-à-vis Yemen? Given the corruption and unpopularity of Saleh’s regime, together with its unreliability as an ally in counter-terrorism operations against AQAP, it seems that the most sensible option is to simply end aid to his government and allow it to fall at the hands of the current wave of protests in Yemen.
One might object that such a move would instead help AQAP by creating a power vacuum. This would certainly be a risk, but not if the West backs the Houthis, who are themselves opposed to Al-Qaeda, with the latter now having declared jihad against the Houthis in an audio message posted on the Internet. As Saeed Ali al-Shihri, the deputy leader of AQAP, puts it: ‘to our Sunni fellows in northern Yemeni provinces of Saada, Al- Jouf and Amran, we (AQAP) announced jihad (holy war) against Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite advocates’. In this context, it should be pointed out that there is no evidence that Iran is backing the Houthi rebels. Even so, with Western support and guarantees for protection, the Houthis could well serve as a containment force, diverting AQAP’s attention from waging international jihad and spreading beyond Yemen into the Arabian Peninsula, since the group’s primary goal is to unite Yemen as an Islamist state.
On the other hand, the US should end drone attacks in Yemen (where overt military intervention, as in Somalia and Pakistan, undermines our own security interests), whilst Western governments should make it clear to AQAP that any further aggression will be met with severe retaliation. Furthermore, if our governments are to win over the Houthis, who are at present resentful of Western support for Saleh, they should also put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop conducting airstrikes against Houthis in Yemeni territory, a fact of which US officials have long been aware.
By adopting a strategy of containment as outlined, it does not follow that AQAP will be eradicated from Yemen, but we will at least be able to safeguard our security interests against any threats emanating from Islamist militants in that country. For too long, review of policy towards Yemen has been neglected. A major shift is desperately needed.