U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts dealt a serious blow to al-Qaeda's operations in Yemen in 2003, but lapsed vigilance by both governments allowed the organization to resurge in 2006 in its strongest form yet. Preventing Yemen from becoming another al-Qaeda safe haven requires more than traditional security assistance from the United States, argued Gregory D. Johnsen, an expert on Yemen, and Shari Villarosa, deputy coordinator for Regional Affairs in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, in a discussion moderated by Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek. The United States must also support critical economic and governance reforms in Yemen. 

First Phase of the War Against al-Qaeda
Johnsen explained that from October 2002 to November 2003, the Yemeni government cooperated closely with the United States to fight al-Qaeda. U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism efforts were largely successful in this phase, with the November 2002 assassination of Qaeda Senyan al-Harethi, an al-Qaeda operative linked to the attack on the USS Cole, a prime example.

By the end of 2003, al-Qaeda appeared to be largely defeated, and both governments shifted focus. The Yemeni government turned to stopping the al-Houthi insurgency in the north and the secessionist movement in the south. The U.S. government prioritized anti-corruption reforms.

Second Phase of the War Against al-Qaeda

Johnsen identified the February 2006 prison break of 23 al-Qaeda suspects as the start of the second phase of the war against al-Qaeda in Yemen. One of these escapees, Nasir al-Wahayshi, a former secretary of Osama bin Laden, oversaw the rebuilding of al-Qaeda. It now has more recruits, publishes a bi-monthly journal to reach out to the local Yemeni population, and merged with the Saudi Arabian branch and formed al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The momentum is now with al-Qaeda, Johnsen explained, which learned from its failures in the first phase. It launched more attacks within Yemen, and Saudi militants have fled to Yemen. While there is no concrete evidence yet that al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan are using Yemen as a safe haven, there is a substantial risk that they may do so in the future.

Yemen’s Domestic Problems Impede Counterterrorism Efforts

Johnsen stressed that the Yemeni government continues to see the northern insurgency and southern secessionist movement as posing a greater threat to its survival than al-Qaeda. Villarosa added that the government is facing several domestic crises that severely weaken its capacity to govern, let alone fight al-Qaeda: a deteriorating economic situation, looming water shortages, rampant illegal arms trafficking, a porous border, and insufficient maritime security. As the government’s control over its territory weakens and citizen dissatisfaction grows, al-Qaeda is growing stronger.

U.S. Assistance to Yemen
Both stressed that addressing these economic and governance problems are critical to winning the fight against al-Qaeda in Yemen in the long-term. Villarosa explained that in addition to traditional security assistance – such as law enforcement training, assistance to improve border security, and support for counterterrorism legislation – the United States has already begun shifting its focus to these areas. USAID funding for programs that address good governance, health, education, and economic growth increased from $9.3 million in FY 2008 to $24 million in FY 2009. This trend is promising, Villarosa said, but the key factor will be whether political will within the Yemeni government materializes to implement these reforms.