View of Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen
Yemen, a country whose counter-terrorism mission was once deemed a “success” by President Barack Obama, seems to be heading for conflict and bloodshed. A group of Shiite rebels called the Houthis (after the family that founded and leads the group) controls much of the northern part of the nation including Sana’a, the de jure capital. Ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni, is trying to reclaim his former power, making the city of Aden his de facto capital.
Yemen, of course, has long been a breeding ground for terrorism. It was here that radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, was hiding and before he was killed by a US drone strike. Ibrahim al-Asiri, al-Qaeda’s perceived master bomb maker, is suspected to be responsible for creating the bomb used in the 2009 Christmas day plane bombing attempt, and also found “refuge” in the country.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP or al-Qaeda in Yemen) is still undoubtedly a threat, even though most international focus on counter-terrorism has shifted to the Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS). However, with the recent chaos in Yemen, further sectarian violence and conflict is likely to give radical groups more cover, and the United States and other Western nations would be wise to take notice.
Chaos in Middle-Eastern countries is certainly nothing new, and neither is the tendency for radical Islamist groups to find shelter during these chaotic times. One needs not look far to see the possible effects of a country’s turmoil on terrorist activities.
Libya is a prime example. After the fall of longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi, the provisional National Transitional Council, responsible for orchestrating the rebellion and governing the large North African nation soon after, was too weak to disarm the numerous militias that caused Gaddafi to fall. One such group, Ansar al-Sharia, is thought to be responsible for the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, which itself was the city at the center of the rebellion.
Libya’s situation only got worse, and now the Islamic State and two governments, one secular and one Islamist, are fighting for control of the nation. An example of IS’s expansion into the region can be seen in the “colony” that the group carved out in Derna. To those who doubt that IS’s move into Libya is merely symbolic of their hopes of establishing a “caliphate,” one should take note that the group recently used their territory in Libya as a base to murder 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.
With the lessons of Libya fresh in the minds of people, Yemen’s situation should indubitably be cause for concern. The similarities between the two situations are equally striking: two governments claiming legitimacy are trying to gain control of the country, and Islamist terrorists are gaining territory, with AQAP controlling much of the central coast of Yemen.
So what is the West, particularly the United States, to do? There is likely little support for more foreign intervention among the US public, especially after two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and smaller interventions in Libya and Syria. However, should the West attempt to wash its hands clean of the situation in Yemen, its capabilities for countering jihadists in the region will be greatly hindered.
Sure, without intervening, the US can still continue drone strikes against militants operating in the country. However, without a ground-based intelligence force, it will become more difficult to acquire the information to target high-profile targets in AQAP or any other terrorist group.
So what should the US strategy be? Admittedly, it seems difficult to assess at this point, because there are no good options on the table. The Houthi rebels are not exactly the most pro-American group, but their leadership has expressed marginal willingness to try to work with the US. It is also unlikely that Hadi’s relatively pro-American government in the southwest, or even the Houthis for that matter, will be able to take control of the entire country.
Radical Sunni group, al-Islah, could also complicate matters. Fervently anti-Shiite, al-Islah is sure to resist the Houthi takeover in the coming weeks and months.
A preliminary American strategy should be to reach out to the Houthis. While the US will likely never be “friends” with them, even limited intelligence sharing could pave the way for greater precision and accuracy in attacking AQAP and other terrorist group hiding areas. The US should also not completely abandon the Sunni-led government in Aden, as they too may have unique intelligence that could prove valuable.
Picking one side over another in this conflict, however, is unlikely to yield any major benefit. Houthis have firm control of many of the areas they hold at this moment, and any attempt to force them out of power would lead to a bloody civil war (more so than the one now) and afterwards a violent insurgency.
So, to be sure, the Yemeni situation is complex and none of the available scenarios can be considered optimal. Unfortunately, we all must oftentimes play the cards we are dealt, and at the moment, the West and the United States have been dealt a particularly difficult hand.
Image Attribution: “Old Town Sanaa – Yemen 53” by Richard Messenger, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0