(by Margaret Coker and Sarah Childress, WSJ.com) — Arab and Western officials worry that al Qaeda is securing a stronghold in Yemen, where the government’s focus on quelling a rebel insurgency is allowing the terror group to strengthen its ability to destabilize neighbors in East Africa and the Mideast.
Yemen’s government, which has long struggled to assert control over the country’s far-flung tribes and Islamic militant groups, launched a new offensive this summer against rebels living near its northern border with Saudi Arabia. The fighting, now in its seventh week, has shaken a fragile humanitarian situation. United Nations officials warned recently that food aid in the region is running low.
A report released this month by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that Yemen is facing “unprecedented” levels of instability.
The homeland of Osama bin Laden’s father, Yemen has long been a top U.S. security concern. For years, al Qaeda militants — including at least one Saudi released from U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — have taken refuge here. One complication surrounding the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo is what to do with the nearly 100 Yemeni detainees there. U.S. intelligence officials say they have little confidence in the Yemeni government’s ability to keep them in prison back in their home country.
Looking Back at Yemen’s Role in the Middle East
Since the 2000 al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, U.S. officials have reported mixed results from the Yemeni government in the fight against terrorism. President Ali Abdullah Saleh established a rehabilitation program for jailed Islamic militants, but hasn’t curbed the growing network of al Qaeda fighters who have flocked to lawless parts of Yemen and are using the country as a launching pad for attacks.
U.S. officials say they believe that the lack of resolve on the part of the Yemeni government is due to President Saleh’s preoccupation with what he sees as more pressing internal security threats coming from the nation’s fractious political and tribal system.
Chief among his priorities these days is the government’s massive offensive against the Houthis, rebels living near the border with Saudi Arabia. The government has been fighting the group intermittently for the past five years.
The Houthis, like the president, adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam. They rose up against the government to protest official corruption and lack of development in their northern enclave.
President Saleh says the group is trying to unseat him. Government officials have tried to paint the struggle in sectarian and wider geopolitical terms, hinting — but offering no proof — that Iran is aiding the rebels. The Houthis deny this.
In August, the army launched another offensive and met strong resistance from the Houthis. According to local news reports, the army then apparently redeployed troops tasked to fight al Qaeda cells over to the Houthi front lines. (The Yemeni government has blocked journalists from entering the area, so troop movements are difficult to verify.)
The new offensive comes as al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, as the local branch of the militant group is called, appears to be gaining strength. An Arab intelligence official says that al Qaeda fighters fled to Yemen this summer from Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the movement has suffered military setbacks in recent months.
While the number of fighters retreating to Yemen is unknown, the movement is worrying Yemen’s Arab and African neighbors. Recently, al Qaeda announced the merging of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of the organization in Yemen after a crackdown by Saudi authorities.
A Saudi militant, traveling from an al Qaeda safe house in Yemen, injured Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister in a failed suicide-bombing attack last month.
In 2008, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for two suicide-bomb attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, in which 16 Yemenis were killed. This year, the group claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Korean tourists and two of their Yemeni security guards.
Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen are also aiding Islamic rebels trying to topple the Somali government, according to U.N. officials in Somalia and Yemen. Al Shabab, the Somali insurgency group that U.S. officials view as an al Qaeda proxy in East Africa, restocks with fighters and weapons through Yemeni smugglers working the narrow Red Sea passage between the two countries, these officials said.
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing last week against African Union troops, who are tasked with helping to stabilize the country. The attack killed 21 people.
Write to Margaret Coker at email@example.com.
NOTE: The article above was first published at wsj.com on September 28th.
1. a) Name the capital of Yemen.
b) List the countries and bodies of water that border Yemen.
c) Who is the president of Yemen?
2. Why is a branch of al Qaeda operating out of Yemen?
3. a) Who are the Houthis?
b) Why are the Houthis fighting the Yemeni government?
4. Why do U.S. officials believe the Yemeni government has not been able to prevent al Qaeda from operating in Yemen?
5. Why are Yemen’s neighbors concerned about al Qaeda’s presence in that country?
6. Read more about Yemen in the “Background” and links under “Resources” below. What do you think is the most realistic way for the U.S. to convince the Yemeni government to focus on conquering al Qaeda in Yemen?
Yemen, located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is a poor Muslim country with a weak central government, armed tribal groups in outlying areas, and porous borders, which makes it fertile ground for terrorists. Its government has tried to help the United States after September 11, and the State Department calls Yemen “an important partner in the campaign against terrorism, providing assistance in the military, diplomatic, and financial arenas.” But experts say that terrorists live in Yemen, sometimes with government approval; Yemen-based corporations are thought to help fund Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network; and Yemenis affiliated with al-Qaeda have targeted U.S. interests in Yemen, including the October 2000 bombing of the navy destroyer U.S.S. Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. (from cfr.org)
Interesting note: The reputed home of the Queen of Sheba, Yemen has been at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and Asia for thousands of years thanks to its position on the ancient spice routes.
For background on Yemen, go to the U.S. State Department website at state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35836.htm.
For a map of Yemen and the Middle East, go to worldatlas.com.
For Wall Street Journal coverage of Yemen in the Middle East in the late 1970s, go to:
Read an article on the September 2008 terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen at studentnewsdaily.com/daily-news-article/embassy-attack-in-yemen-a-wake-up-call.
Read about the Houthis at wikipedia.org.