The Yemeni government’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism have been complicated by a host of daunting challenges: two internal rebellions, a thriving drug trade, water scarcity, and extreme poverty.  Under the Obama administration, the United States is increasingly committed to addressing the structural conditions that have undermined Yemen’s stability and rendered the country a haven for extremism. John Brennan, assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, discussed counterterrorism, capacity-building, and broader U.S. policy toward Yemen at a panel moderated by Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews.

A Strategy of Cooperation and Engagement with Yemen

Brennan began his remarks by observing that the Obama administration’s policy toward Yemen mirrors two aspects of the Carnegie Endowment’s mission: advancing cooperation and promoting international engagement by the United States. The administration’s strategy on Yemen has been driven by an understanding of the country’s turbulent history and its strategic significance.

  • Historical context:  Brennan stressed that Yemen’s past is inseparable from the challenges facing President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government today. North and South Yemen were formally unified in 1990, but the South continued to harbor secessionist aspirations that ultimately sparked a civil war in 1994. Although the North defeated the rebel movement, the integration of the two states has been troubled by persistent tensions. Currently, a resurgent secessionist movement is again threatening Yemen’s stability, fueled by southern grievances with the North’s political and economic domination of the country. The Obama administration has urged Yemen’s government to continue engaging southern leaders through dialogue.
  • Strategic significance:  Brennan emphasized the importance of evaluating the Yemeni situation in its regional context. Situated at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Yemen has served as a commercial and transportation hub for centuries. The Obama administration’s policy toward Yemen acknowledges the economic and political ramifications of the country’s geographic position. “Yemen matters to the world not simply because of the threats emanating from its borders, but because of its enduring strategic significance,” Brennan said.

Structural Challenges Require Long-Term Strategies

The administration is committed to dismantling al-Qaeda’s operation in Yemen, but Brennan explained that the United States cannot successfully combat extremism without simultaneously addressing the numerous socioeconomic and environmental challenges that have rendered Yemen a sanctuary for extremists. A strategy that focuses too heavily on immediate threats while ignoring long-term challenges would be “doomed to fail,” Brennan said. The Obama administration’s goal  is thus “to create lasting security and prosperity in Yemen so that extremists cannot find safe haven there,” he said.

  • Internal unrest:  In addition to the southern secessionist movement, Yemen’s government is also grappling with a Shi’ite rebellion in the North. In both cases, the disaffected rebels complain of economic and political marginalization and have called on the central government to provide economic assistance and initiate reconstruction in areas damaged by fighting. Brennan said that persistent conflict in the North and South has strained the government’s capacity to govern effectively.
  • Economic hardship:  Yemen’s economy—heavily reliant on oil revenues—has not been sufficiently diversified in anticipation of the inevitable exhaustion of the country’s limited petroleum reserves. According to Brennan, an estimated 40 percent of Yemenis are unemployed, and the average citizen subsists on an annual per capita income of less than $1,000. Rapid population growth has strained the country’s infrastructure and resources. Half of all Yemenis are under the age of 20 and the country’s population—estimated to be 23 million—is expected to double before 2040.
  • Water scarcity: An acute water shortage is creating serious challenges for public health and agriculture, Brennan added. 
  • A thriving drug trade: Yemen’s economic development has been hindered by widespread cultivation of the narcotic plant, qat, which farmers view as a profitable alternative to nutritive crops, Brennan said. Despite the fact that one-third of Yemenis are under-nourished, qat has steadily crowded out productive crops that could help sustain Yemen’s skyrocketing population.

A Sanctuary for Al-Qaeda

The economic and security challenges that have undermined Yemen’s stability have made the country an attractive haven for al-Qaeda operatives. After Saudi Arabia successfully dismantled several domestic terrorist cells in 2007, many al-Qaeda members fled south to Yemen, where they quickly regrouped to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). 

  • AQAP’s global reach: Brennan described AQAP as al-Qaeda’s “most active operational node.” The organization has been bolstered by international recruits including the radical cleric, Anwar Awlaki, a dual citizen of the United States and Yemen. 
  • A strategy based on fear: According to Brennan, recent al-Qaeda operations such as the failed plot to send two package bombs to American synagogues reveal that the organization is evolving its tactics based on lessons learned from past attacks. However, Brennan said that AQAP still adheres to the same definition of success: “Stoking fear, even if the attacks fail.” 

Comprehensive solutions

The Obama administration is committed to addressing the root causes of instability in Yemen, Brennan said. By combining military aid with development assistance, the United States aims to strengthen the Yemeni government’s capacity to eradicate “the terrible cancer of al-Qaeda.”

  • Combining military aid with development assistance: The Obama administration has dramatically increased aid to Yemen, reaching approximately $300 million for 2011. Brennan stressed that half of these funds are earmarked for non-military assistance. Civilian agencies such as USAID and the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Treasury, and Health and Human Services are working alongside the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to improve stability and prosperity in Yemen, Brennan said.
  • Capacity-building: Strengthening the capacity of Yemen’s counter-terrorism apparatus will allow the United States to ramp down security aid and assistance over time, Brennan said. U.S. counter-terrorism forces are actively training their Yemeni counterparts and working to refine Yemen’s airport screening procedures.
  • Reintegrating Guantanamo detainees: The Obama administration is working with Yemen’s government to ensure that Yemeni nationals released from Guantanamo Bay do not revert to extremism. This task requires confronting the economic and social forces that render individuals vulnerable to radical ideologies, and Brennan said that the Yemeni government is working to develop rehabilitation programs that would provide former detainees with job training and psychological and religious counseling.
  • International support: Brennan stressed that Yemen needs the support of the United States and other allies to effectively combat terrorism. The Obama administration is working with the Friends of Yemen—a coalition of international partners—to facilitate the flow of aid to Yemen.  “The international community will not stand by idly and watch Yemen fall victim to al-Qaeda’s murderous strategy,” Brennan said.
  • A bilateral relationship based on honesty: The recent release of classified State Department cables by the WikiLeaks website has shed light on tensions in the U.S.-Yemeni relationship.  Yemeni officials have criticized the United States for failing to provide adequate military support, while U.S. officials have called on President Saleh’s government to crack down on smuggling and enforce stricter airport screening procedures. Alluding to these disagreements, Brennan said, “That is the hallmark of true friendship: not telling the other what they want to hear but telling the other what they need to hear.”