Just a few months ago, President Obama could point to Yemen as a positive example of U.S. counter-terrorism policy. The resignation last week of Yemen’s President, Prime Minister, and cabinet has, however, thrown the future of the country, and U.S. counter-terrorism (CT) policy, into disarray.
The current U.S. CT strategy against al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (IS) is based on attrition (i.e. killing off terrorists with airstrikes), but also on having capable partners to work with. The collapse of Yemen’s government means that the U.S. may have lost the only partner able to provide this necessary piece of the strategy and shows a weakness of current CT policy: its dependence on central governments that are weak or even, in some cases, nearly non-existent.
To understand why the collapse of Yemen is significant for U.S. national security, a little backstory is necessary. The stunning shift in the state of the country from September to today was not the first reversal Yemen has experienced in its war with the radicals. In 2010-2011, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) swept through the southern part of the country, seizing several key cities, imposing its extremist version of Shariah, and declaring an “Islamic Emirate” in Abyan. The following year, the Yemeni army, backed by the U.S., launched a sustained offensive against AQ and succeeded in extirpating the extremists from the territory they had occupied.
While some outside observers believed that AQAP was beaten, the Yemeni offensive did not actually defeat the insurgents, who simply returned to irregular warfare against the army and government. In the summer of 2012, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi sent a letter to the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), explaining that his group had put up resistance to the Yemeni government, but soon realized they had to withdraw and instead carry out a guerrilla warfare and assassination campaign against the enemy. The Yemeni army, along with local Popular Committees (tribal militias), stubbornly fought AQ and prevented its resurgence for over a year. From mid-2013 on, however, the country has seen a slow return of AQAP—by assassinating tribal leaders and defeating government forces—to those areas the group once occupied.
The fact that the Houthis are Zaydis, a form of Islam belonging to the broader family of Shi'ism, has prompted AQAP to emphasize the sectarian nature of the fight in Yemen and to call for Sunnis around the world to rally to their side.
The difficult situation in Yemen was made even more complex in September when an insurgent group of Houthis (under the name “Ansarullah”), occupied Sana’a and began to expand their control southward. The fact that the Houthis are Zaydis, a form of Islam belonging to the broader family of Shi’ism, has prompted AQAP to emphasize the sectarian nature of the fight in Yemen and to call for Sunnis around the world to rally to their side. The suspected involvement of Iran in Yemen, accused of financing and supporting the Houthis by some observers, has given further ammunition to AQAP and adds additional complications. Saudi Arabia sees the rise of the Houthis and Iranian involvement in their neighboring country as direct threats to their own national security interests. There have also been news reports that the U.S. government is considering working with the Houthis to take on AQAP, but any engagement of Iran in Yemen could make this shift in partners problematic.
All of this recent history is made critically important for the U.S. because AQAP has spent the last few years trying to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other Western countries. The attempts were set off by a Yemeni airstrike, reportedly with U.S. participation, against an AQ gathering on December 17, 2009 that killed 55, including fourteen AQ members. AQAP responded with the Christmas “underwear bomb” that nearly took down an American jet over Detroit. In their claim of responsibility, AQAP stressed that this was in retaliation for the bombing and to repel America. But if this attempt was essentially defensive in nature, AQAP is also involved in offensive threats, most especially the Khorasan Group’s “imminent threat” against the U.S. and Europe and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. The U.S. has responded to AQAP terrorism by carrying out an aggressive campaign of airstrikes against AQAP members, leadership, and ordinary militants alike. The strikes have, according to New America, killed hundreds, but it has not destroyed the group or ended the threat.
IS's involvement in Yemen is somewhat more complicated. Although the group has managed to attract a large number of Saudis to its cause, it has been less successful in recruiting Yemenis. AQAP has also proven resistant to the appeal of IS, despite a statement from August 2014, which was taken by some observers to signal a shift in AQAP loyalty from the AQ leadership to IS. AQAP put out a clarifying statement in November that blasted IS as an illegitimate Caliphate and rebuked IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for his pretensions to lead the global jihad. Nevertheless, the collapse of the Yemeni government might lead to a change in IS’s relative neglect of the country. Just last week, a British fighter and recruiter with IS called attention to the fighting in Yemen—a first for IS—while Yemeni officials have been stressing the new presence of IS militants in the country.
It is worrying as well that, while many Americans are paying attention to events in Syria and Iraq, or to the attacks in Paris, places like Yemen (or Libya) have quickly fallen off the radar, even though they are just as vital for our security.
The collapse of Yemen is thus intimately tied to four serious national security challenges: the growing strength of AQ and IS in the Arabian Peninsula; terrorist threats to the homeland and Europe; the rise of Iranian regional power; and the loss of a partner for the CT fight. The stunning setback also calls into question the success of the so-called “Yemeni model” for combatting AQ and IS in other countries. It is worrying as well that, while many Americans are paying attention to events in Syria and Iraq, or to the attacks in Paris, places like Yemen (or Libya) have quickly fallen off the radar, even though they are just as vital for our security. The breakdown of a small and distant country like Yemen might seem tragic, yet unimportant for U.S. national interests. But we can ill-afford to ignore any piece of territory that will be used by the extremists to plot and plan attacks.