Ten years ago, the USS Cole was bombed off the coast of Yemen, killing seventeen U.S. soldiers and injuring 39 others. Since then, the situation in Yemen has deteriorated and the country is now on the brink of collapse. Last year’s failed Christmas day attack on a flight headed for Detroit and the presence of notorious U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who calls for deadly strikes on the United States from his place of refuge in the country, have highlighted the terrorist threat coming from Yemen.

Christopher Boucek analyzes al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen and what the United States can do to contain the threat. Boucek argues that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now more dangerous than the central leadership hiding in South Asia—there is no greater threat to U.S. national security. Washington must take a balanced approach and rely on both short-term counterterrorism operations and long-term development assistance; the current emphasis on hard security only makes matters worse. 

What is the threat of terrorism out of Yemen?

Faced with multiple internal conflicts, economic meltdown, and poor governance, Yemen is close to state failure. As Yemen’s problems get worse, the threat of terrorism grows. And the worsening internal conditions create a near perfect haven for terrorists to plot, plan, train for, and mount domestic, regional, and international attacks.

Al-Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen officially merged in January 2009 and formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The new group has been successful in exploiting local grievances and branding itself internationally as an active and successful al-Qaeda outfit. AQAP is now attracting people to train for and participate in jihad. The group’s ability to frame the situation in Yemen and cast U.S. military assistance and counterterrorism strikes as an American occupation has drawn foreign terrorists to Yemen. Its actions have some looking at AQAP as the most viable al-Qaeda organization today.     

AQAP is an organization that says what it wants to do and then finds a way to do it. The group repeatedly emphasizes its global ambitions and desire to hit Western targets, and has demonstrated the ability to follow through on its threats. Even when things don't work out in its favor, it tries again—a dangerous quality. The most recent example of this is the attack on the British diplomatic convoy in Sana’a. The fear is that it is only a matter of time before AQAP is able to hit inside the United States.


How does Yemen compare to other states the United States is concerned about?

The threat coming out of Yemen is now greater than the one coming from al-Qaeda’s central leadership in South Asia. Other states of concern—from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Somalia—do not pose as immediate a threat to the United States as Yemen does. AQAP is a more pressing concern for U.S. national security as the group is agile and opportunistic—actively looking for openings to inflict harm around the world.

Yemen is next door to the world’s largest oil producer and strategically wedged between the Horn of Africa and other countries in the Arabian Peninsula. The country has a long history of extremism, political violence, and terrorism. There was a sizable number of Yemenis who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation and Yemenis made up the second largest group in al-Qaeda training camps before 9/11.

Many ominous signs point to the severity of the threat out of Yemen, from the first al-Qaeda attack on a U.S. target occurring in Yemen in 1992, the USS Cole bombing in 2000, and the attempted strike on the Detroit-bound plane in December of 2009. The Christmas day plot was the first al-Qaeda attempt on a domestic U.S. target that wasn’t planned in South Asia. And many of the recent domestic schemes targeting the United States can be linked to or have a connection with Yemen. 

While al-Qaeda’s central leaders are faced with an aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan and a large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is relatively free to operate in Yemen’s under-governed spaces. The group is taking advantage of Yemen’s instability and the absence of central government authority in significant portions of the country. 


How strong is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula?

It is estimated that there are several hundred al-Qaeda members in Yemen, including Yemenis, Saudis, and other foreigners. While the size sounds small, AQAP’s strength is clear. Primarily targeting the Yemeni security services, energy infrastructure, and foreigners, AQAP attacks in Yemen have steadily increased in recent years.

According to some estimates there have been over 30 attacks this year alone. AQAP has attacked the U.S. embassy twice, killed tourists from Belgium, South Korea, and Spain, and attempted to assassinate both the British ambassador and the deputy chief of mission. The situation actually looks better than it really is as there are not too many obvious American targets to hit in Yemen.

The group has also carried out operations in the region. AQAP has tried to assassinate Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi counterterrorism chief, on several occasions. It’s clear that AQAP is determined to mount global strikes.

One of the biggest problems in Yemen is the ever expanding recruiting pool of under-educated and under-employed men. Every day there are more men that can be recruited to carry out AQAP’s ambitions. A recent recruitment video focused on corruption and the failings of the Yemeni government, as opposed to international jihad. This is an issue that plays well with a Yemeni audience and points to AQAP’s success in exploiting local grievances.

AQAP clearly learned from its mistakes in Saudi Arabia and fine-tuned its messages to resonate with the local population. The group is careful to justify its actions and is discerning when choosing domestic targets to avoid deliberately hurting civilians.


What are AQAP’s links to other al-Qaeda affiliated groups?

While AQAP appears to have modeled itself on the central group, it is autonomous from leaders in South Asia. AQAP’s leader Naser al-Wuhayshi fought in Afghanistan alongside Osama bin Laden and Wuhayshi’s deputy Said Ali al-Shihri was also in Afghanistan before being captured and sent to Guantanamo. But despite the personal links, the groups operate separately and independently.

AQAP doesn't view itself as subservient to the original group but increasingly as equal to the central leadership. They do not wait for direction or approval from the core group. It’s notable and important that when recruits join al-Qaeda they swear allegiance to al-Qaeda and bin Laden. As Gregory Johnsen has noted, when joining AQAP, they swear allegiance to Wuhayshi—and not to al-Qaeda or bin Laden.


Is terrorism Yemen’s most pressing challenge?

Terrorism is actually the least of Yemen’s problems. Terrorism itself is not going to destroy Yemen, it’s the confluence of multiple crises that puts Yemen in danger. Besides the resurgent al-Qaeda organization, the country faces an ongoing civil war in the north, an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south, inadequate governance, economic ruin, and is quickly running out of water. Eighty percent of violence in Yemen is in some way connected to disputes over access to water.

While weak states around the world face similar issues, Yemen is dealing with all of them at the same time. And the government doesn’t have the capacity to address these problems. Al-Qaeda thrives in the areas that lack state control and is fueled by the government’s failure to deal with the root causes of the instability. Terrorism is in part the manifestation of the other problems.


What should the United States and international community do to confront the threat?

The current emphasis on hard security is backwards—it will actually increase the threat of terrorism out of Yemen. Purely focusing on counterterrorism and security operations inflames grievances and plays into AQAP’s hands. While Western security assistance and clandestine counterterrorism operations should clearly play a role, this type of support must be balanced with long-term development assistance that improves the livelihoods of Yemenis and builds the capacity and legitimacy of the Yemeni government.

The international donor community needs to be better coordinated. Each donor now has its own policies and agenda, but Yemen’s problems should be divvied up among them. While the international community needs to be realistic and not expect to solve all of Yemen’s problems, it needs to immediately improve its coordination to contain the threat. Outside support can help improve the legal system, counterterrorism laws, prison system, and the capabilities of police and intelligence units. Additionally, donors can support land reform, water conservation, education, and efforts to reduce corruption. 

By devoting an estimated $2 billion a year, Saudi Arabia is Yemen’s largest donor—by far—so it needs to be included in any Western plans. Saudi Arabia also has the most at stake as it will receive the brunt of any negative aspects that spread beyond Yemen’s borders. Yemen’s most important relationship is with Saudi Arabia and Sana’a listens to what Riyadh says. This means that if Saudi Arabia is not included and made part of the solution, outside efforts are bound to fail.

Fears of government corruption have caused some to question the potential improvement that outside development assistance can buy. But the problems are so severe that even the Yemeni government has said that international donors are welcome to fund specific efforts and bypass government hands. The international community is stuck with the Yemeni government and the alternatives are even worse, but coordinated and targeted support can help improve governance and push institutions to improve.

Given the strategic importance of Yemen, the United States should appoint a special representative to coordinate U.S. policy on Yemen. The country’s problems are too important to ignore—Yemen’s problems are U.S. problems too.