Yemen is seemingly slipping deeper into turmoil after months of antigovernment protests and mounting tensions. The risk of a protracted conflict erupting into an uncontrollable civil war looms large. With Yemen teetering ever closer to the brink, fears are high that the threat of terrorism emanating from the country could grow even more pronounced.
In a Q&A, Christopher Boucek analyzes Yemen’s internal situation, the strength of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and U.S. counterterrorism efforts. He argues that while recent U.S. drone strikes have been successful, the United States cannot rely on a remote control to defeat terrorism. Improving governance and quality of life for Yemenis will do more to reduce violence in Yemen than drones ever will.
Is AQAP benefiting from the government’s increasing weakness?
As the Yemeni government’s authority and presence recedes, the under-governed spaces where al-Qaeda thrives are growing. When protests kicked off early in the year, the government pulled counterterrorism resources away from going after AQAP and used the assets to prop up its own rule instead.
The situation devolved quicker than anyone expected and the Yemeni government is now trying to put the terrorism threat back in the box. While it is not any easy task, the Yemeni government has gone to great lengths in recent months to be proactive. The government is being even more active than it was in the past, both for its own sake and due to international pressure. According to American officials, Yemeni cooperation on counterterrorism issues has greatly improved.
The talk about AQAP taking over towns and leading the opposition was overblown, as the protests have not been led by AQAP. There were likely AQAP elements active in some of the violence seen in the south of the country, but there is still much that is unclear. The last year has been one of the longest periods between successful regional or international terrorist attacks since before 2007. AQAP is under intense pressure. The Yemeni government has been more hands-on in combating the threat and the United States is relentless in its pursuit of well-known leaders.
Yemen is sometimes portrayed as an option between two extremes: either there is an authoritarian central government that will support counterterrorism or tribes that will shelter al-Qaeda. But this thinking doesn’t withstand scrutiny. While the Yemeni government has often times sought to portray any opposition as terrorists, this isn’t actually the case. And there is so much we don’t know or understand about what goes on across Yemen.
With all of this being said, AQAP is still an incredibly dangerous organization. Even though Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in September and some of AQAP’s ability to communicate with Western audiences and recruit like-minded individuals was compromised, it remains an innovative, fast-learning, and opportunistic group. It’s important to note that Ibrahim Hassan Assiri
, the Saudi bomb maker linked to almost every AQAP plot, continues to evade capture. He is perhaps the most dangerous operational figure at large today.
And the government’s ability to combat AQAP is ominously low. To fight terrorism, a country must have two things—capacity and political will. Yemen has typically come up short on both accounts. There are many things that still need to improve urgently.
Will President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down soon? Would Saleh’s exit calm the political crisis?
President Saleh is the single dominating force in Yemen and this is how he has governed for more than thirty years. The weeks of spiraling violence before he returned last month after receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia threatened to get much worse and there was no one else in the country who could pull the country back from the brink of wider fighting.
This reinforces the point that there needs to be a transitional process. No matter what one’s opinion is of President Saleh, he is the legitimately elected president of Yemen. Saleh has agreed to step down, but he will probably stretch out the turnover as long as he can.
The most viable solution for how to move forward now is through early elections. The regime and parts of the opposition have indicated that they are prepared to move in this direction, but everyone needs to compromise. At the moment there is no incentive for all the parties to make the necessary concessions. Until that happens, there is little likelihood of progress.
Saleh’s watching what is happening to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and wants to avoid the same fate. While he won’t be president for another term, turning the situation over to chaos is worse. With a country filled with weapons and many competing factions, there needs to be a clear sense of what comes next. Moreover, Yemen’s problems will not magically disappear once Saleh steps down. The situation is far more complicated than that.
What is the greatest danger Yemen faces today?
It’s the economy. The untold story of Yemen’s internal insecurity and the threat of terrorism is that the economy has collapsed. Yemen is running out of money, food prices are skyrocketing, oil prices are climbing sharply, water is harder and harder to find, unemployment is growing, and the government doesn’t have the capacity to solve any of the problems. The Yemeni people are already among the most vulnerable communities in the region, and conditions are getting worse as the crisis drags on.
This is the real concern with Yemen. These problems are what lead to under-governed spaces and breeding grounds for terrorism. The international community needs to help reduce corruption and increase the number of jobs available—this will do more to reduce the terrorist threat.
What is the significance of Anwar al-Awlaki’s death?
The commentary on Awlaki falls into opposite extremes—he was either insignificant or a terrorist mastermind. The truth is somewhere in between. At first, I was a real skeptic of Awlaki’s influence and role in global terrorism. But now I have no doubt that Awlaki was not only a propagandist and recruiter, he was also closely involved in the foreign operations of AQAP.
AQAP is still an extremely dangerous organization—the jihadi group that the United States should be most concerned about—but Awlaki’s death has degraded the outfit’s ability to mount attacks in the West.
Awlaki was a brilliant speaker and powerful orator and it was his unique capacity to communicate with vulnerable communities in the West that was the really scary thing. People who weren’t on intelligence radars because they hadn’t been to training camps, but were out there looking for answers, could find direction in Awlaki’s words. He sounded credible, legitimate, and authentic.
While AQAP is not a monolithic organization, there is an internationally oriented segment that targets the West and Awlaki was key within that group. The fact that Samir Khan, a web-savvy young American who was the brains behind the Qaeda magazine Inspire, was also killed in the drone strike means that AQAP no longer has the capability to produce slick, high-quality media outreach to build a wider audience in the West. AQAP’s English language propaganda suffered a debilitating blow with the deaths of Awlaki and Khan.
AQAP’s audience was much much bigger because of them. A person didn’t have to travel to Yemen or know Arabic. All someone needed was Google and YouTube. Their deaths were significant.
Was Yemen’s support critical for the successful American airstrike on Awlaki and subsequent attacks?
Despite the coincidence in timing, with President Saleh returning to Yemen days before Awlaki’s death, the drone attack was not a quid pro quo. Saleh was not allowed back into the country by the United States and Saudi Arabia because he gave intelligence on where Awlaki was hiding. The American operation was months in the making, so the timeline doesn’t match.
Yemen, however, clearly plays a role in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the country. Yemenis have resisted going after several persons of interest to the United States for domestic political reasons, but this is now changing.
Yemen is eager to be seen as a good partner to the United States. Many U.S. senior officials feel that the Yemeni government is now more cooperative than it ever was in the past. There is an elite power rivalry that is playing out in Yemen and different factions are vying for U.S. money and support.
Washington should be aware of how U.S. counterterrorism assistance and cooperation affects domestic Yemeni politics. The current political crisis and potential transition will be impacted by how the United States gives its support and who it gives it to. The United States used to need Yemen more than Yemen needed the United States. But ever since the protests threatened the regime’s survival, that’s no longer true.
Success breeds success. The killing of Awlaki helps Washington encourage Yemen to go after the other wanted terrorists. The American administration’s thinking on Yemen is much more mature than many people give it credit for, with Washington looking to find ways to make this situation work to America’s advantage.
Are U.S.-Yemen relations under greater strain?
There are diverging interests between Washington’s reliance on the Yemeni government for counterterrorism support and an international push for Saleh to leave amid calls for greater democracy across the region. But the fear of terrorism is not going away. The United States doesn’t know who is going to come to power next in Yemen and is trying to encourage the government currently in control to do as much as it can today.
Washington is working with the reality that exists now. This doesn’t mean that Washington is not pushing for Saleh’s exit, but the United States wants it to be as peaceful of a process as possible. Washington would like to see a managed process, with as little fallout as possible. If things go bad, they’re going to go really bad. The United States can’t push through a final deal, the Yemenis need to make compromises and find a process that keeps tensions calm.
The Yemeni government argues that a transition process needs to be lawful and legitimate—otherwise they say it would be a coup. No matter what you think about the Yemeni government, President Saleh is the legitimately elected leader. Simply throwing him out right now without any sort of plan for what would come next could make matters worse.
There needs be a way to move toward early elections. American policy has to be realistic and not always idealistic. Washington needs to find a way to help manage Yemen’s problem and contain the threat of terrorism.
U.S. policy has been inconsistent throughout the Arab Spring. When it comes to issues of terrorism, security, and AQAP in Yemen, Washington has tempered the immediate desire to see change and reform. Balancing these two objectives is not easy and because the stakes are so high in Yemen, it seems U.S. policymakers are not pushing for too much change too soon.
How effective are U.S. counterterrorism policies in Yemen? Does America’s reliance on drone attacks reduce the threat of terrorism?
Drone strikes aren’t the ultimate answer. When they work, they work really well and that creates greater pressure to use drones even more. The United States, however, can’t kill its way out of the problem and rely on a remote control to defeat terrorism. U.S. policies shouldn’t be all about counterterrorism.
There’s also an important legal question in the United States about how military assistance can be used against protestors or to prop up illegitimate leaders that needs to be debated and answered. There is a growing narrative within Yemen that its military units that have received U.S. counterterrorism training are the same ones involved in violence against the protesters. In essence, some people think the United States is complicit in the violence against the protest movement. The United States should be concerned about this and make sure that this is not the case.
And there are other ways to improve security in Yemen. The United States can support the rule of law, improve court systems, and enhance police work. Americans don’t want to pay for these activities as much, but they will do more to reduce violence in Yemen than drone strikes.
The three biggest things that the United States can do to help Yemen and reduce the threat of terrorism are increasing access to water for all Yemenis, helping fight corruption, and supporting land reform. None of these are sexy counterterrorism raids that grab headlines, but all of them will improve America’s relationship with Yemen—not just the government, but the people.
The United States needs to shift from having a relationship with the government of Yemen to having a relationship with all Yemenis. This is even more evident as no one knows what or who will come next in Yemen. Right now, there is an impression among Yemenis that the government uses the AQAP bogeyman to get American support and the United States is subsequently seen as helping to prolong repressive rule. This is not in Washington’s interest.
The United States treats Yemen as a failed state, but it’s not yet a failed state. Without a doubt, there is a pressing terrorism concern coming out of Yemen and force must be used to stop present threats. No one would argue with this. But terrorism is not going to ruin Yemen—unemployment, corruption, preventable childhood illnesses, and a lack of water are the problems that will push Yemen over the brink.
There needs to be a better balance in U.S. support and more attention paid to prevent terrorism before it gets worse. It’s shortsighted to only rely on counterterrorism efforts and more work needs to be done to ensure that the ungoverned spaces in Yemen don’t get any bigger.