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Marianna Gurtovnik: Yemen on the Brink

The investigations of U.S. Army major Nidal Malik Hasan’s November 5 murder of 13 soldiers at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, and of the December 25 failed attempt by a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate a bomb inside a 300-passenger plane en route to Detroit, have revealed links between these terrorists and a spawning Al Qaeda network in Yemen. Major Hasan reportedly exchanged e-mails and sought spiritual guidance from a radical U.S.-born Islamic cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who grew up in Yemen. Mr. Abdulmutallab, for his part, said he received training and explosive devices from the Al Qaeda operatives during his four-month stay in Yemen last year. Yemen’s involvement in these terrorist acts has also shed light on its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom Washington urged to launch a vast antiterrorist operation, now underway in the volatile Arab nation. Mr. Saleh is a seasoned war horse. He served as North Yemen’s president for 12 years, before merging the north and south in 1990, following decades of colonial and ideological division. He has been president of this Sunni-dominated nation ever since, although the real extent of his authority is questionable. The government repeatedly clashed with separatists in the south through the 1990s, and the insurrection flared again in 2008. Moreover, violence has escalated in the country’s northwest, along the border with Saudi Arabia, and repeated attempts to quash these Shiite insurgents (led by Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi) have been largely unsuccessful. In the northwest, Al-Houthi insurgents crossed into Saudi Arabia last month, murdering two Saudi patrol guards and triggering a joint Saudi-Yemeni airstrike against guerrillas. Today, the government’s control is effectively limited to the areas surrounding the capital, Sana’a. Although newspapers and 24-hour news channels seem keen to highlight Yemen as the new front in the “war on terror,” the nation actually surfaced as a breeding ground for international terrorists in the early 1990s, when impoverished refugees escaping violence in neighboring Somalia were recruited by Al Qaeda in Yemen. In October 2000, Al Qaeda terrorists blasted a hole in the American Navy destroyer USS Cole harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. And, in September 2008, Al Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, killing ten non-American citizens. For the most part, the Bush administration’s engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq prevented it from allocating resources to confront the burgeoning terrorist network in Yemen. One critical mark of escalation in the Bush administration’s counterterrorism tactics was a CIA-sponsored drone strike in Yemen at the end of 2002 that killed six Al Qaeda operatives, including Qaed Sinan Harithi, the suspected organizer of the USS Cole incident. Today, the reoccurrence of domestic terrorism puts pressure on Obama to eradicate the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula before it gathers strength and threatens the stability of that nation. Indeed, the “systemic problems” that President Obama referenced in his speech about intelligence failures leading up to Mr. Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing could just as well describe the state of affairs within Yemen. The country is plagued by numerous socioeconomic and political ills, including an excessive reliance on rapidly dwindling oil resources, severe water shortage, pervasive corruption, inter-regional tensions, and illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, and population growth rates that are among the highest in the Middle East. While protracted sectarian and territorial disputes have made the task of state-building increasingly difficult for Mr. Saleh, most of the problems the country faces today are the product of his own heavy-handed and short-sighted policies.

THE INDEX — August 19, 2009

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