The Security Situation in Yemen

Earlier today, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Edmund Hull, the former US ambassador to Yemen, in which he seeks to counter four so-called  “myths” about the country where he served.  He says that the following are popular misconceptions about Yemen:

1. The Yemeni government’s control does not extend much beyond the capital, Sana.

2. Yemen is a Qaeda haven because it is the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden, who is supported by tribes in Hadhramaunt Province.

3.  Yemen is torn by Sunni-Shiite divisions, much like Iraq.

4. Yemeni tribes have an inherent affinity for Al Qaeda or terrorism.

Mr. Hull’s assertions do not paint a full picture of the situation.  Although it is true that the Yemeni government has some influence outside Sana, there are large areas of the country where the government is weak, including the northwest  region where an insurgency persists.  Al Qaeda thrives in such places where they are less vulnerable to attacks by security forces; Somalia and the tribal regions of Pakistan are similar regions where militants have a relatively safe haven.

Although Yemeni tribes might not have an “inherent affinity” for Islamic militant groups, they have sheltered Islamic extremists in the past.  Muhammad al-Hanq, who was recently captured after a gun battle, is a tribal leader in Yemen and the head of the Arhab cell of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  Tribes and clans are loyal to members who join terrorist groups, and they are obligated by custom to protect those who seek their hospitality, including anti-American militants.  Consequently, the tribal nature of Yemen may pose a challenge to counterterrorism forces.

There are also significant religious divisions in Yemen, although they may be less serious there than they are in Iraq.  There is a secessionist movement in the south of the country, where residents are primarily Sunni Muslims, against the government in the north, where Shiite Muslims predominate (President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Shiite).  Southerns believe that northerners have unfair economic priviliges, and religious differences might be perceived as one reason for the discrimination.  Al Qaeda is comprised of Sunni extremists, and they might be able to exploit the north-south conflict if it turns violent.

These facts probably will not matter much when it comes to America’s policy toward Yemen.  The US will almost certainly continue to provide the state with intelligence, financial aid and military assistance (such as training and weapons) while carrying out targeted attacks with drone aircraft and special operations teams.  The US will not have a large presence in Yemen nor will it engage in nation-building efforts like it has in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yemeni officials will have to deal with the political, cultural and socioeconomic facets of their country on their own when it comes to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies.

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