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Moving the Goalposts in Yemen

The U.S. insists it has sustained commitment to Yemen’s stability. Will it follow through?

August 2013: The United States allegedly intercepted a message between the emir of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaida. Multiple prison breaks occurred throughout the region. To top it off, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan was ending. Officials acted quickly, closing more than 22 embassies worldwide for a period of time. The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, in particular, received focused attention: 12 tanks positioned near the building, surrounding roads completely shut down, checkpoints, and Yemen’s elite security forces deployed to the capital. As usual, Yemen is in the news.

A true discussion of the terrorism situation in Yemen, however, is incomplete without understanding the multiple threats to the interim Hadi regime, and before that, the long-lasting Salih regime. It’s too much to explain in a single paragraph the interplay between the Houthi rebellion in the northern part of the country, the southern secessionist movement, the constant attacks against Yemeni pipelines and security forces in the tribal areas, the myriad power players and handouts due to them, and, now, the constant specter of the previous Salih regime haunting any progress achieved by Yemen’s new leader.

Realizing this, the United States wisely has a two-pronged counterterrorism strategy in Yemen. First are the targeted strikes so widely discussed in the media, but the second prong, as the American Enterprise Institute explains it, is to “facilitate the establishment of a stable government in control of a unitary Yemeni state that is willing and able to combat AQAP.” This is a more complicated affair than it may seem. Yemen’s state is far from unitary, stable, willing, or able to combat the terrorism threat. The U.S. continues in this Sisyphean task, however, because of the urgent importance of neutralizing AQAP’s threat to the homeland.

Not to be undone, however, the administration seeks to confirm its commitment to nation-bolstering, publicizing what is in fact a comprehensive approach to not only Yemen’s security, but also its governance and development. Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, suffers chronic unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, and dwindling resources. At a 2012 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, then-chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan acknowledged this approach will take “many, many years” — perhaps an understatement.

But is that commitment tied utterly to the terrorism threat in Yemen? Likely.

Three years ago, in 2010, I was briefing a defense official regarding al-Qaida in Yemen when he cut in with a question.

“Why,” he asked, piercing me with a stare, “is Yemen suddenly so dangerous? Where in the last year did this threat come from?”

At the time, the question seemed incomprehensibly shortsighted. I had been focused on the terrorism threat in Yemen since 2004. Certainly, terrorism had been an issue for the country since before the USS Cole attack in 2000 and had never quite stopped. But the policymaker’s question revealed a powerful truth: we pay attention to Yemen only when it is an active theater of jihad.

Dear Yemen, we didn’t care about you before. And when this terrorism thing is over, we won’t care about you again.

When, though, will this ‘terrorism thing’ be over? Likely when 1.) AQAP no longer has transnational aspirations against the West and 2.) Sana’a is safe again for diplomats.

Where did this threat come from?

First, let me attempt to belatedly answer the official’s question.

Yemen became a threat to the United States with al-Qaida’s first known terrorist attack — an explosion in an Aden hotel targeted at US servicemen headed to Somalia. The bomb missed its target and instead killed two Australian tourists.

It was December 1992. Al-Qaida had been established three years before. Men connected to al-Qaida already had begun to plan the 1993 World Trade Center attack. Other associated men had assassinated right wing rabbi Meir Kahane in Manhattan in 1990. Al-Qaida had already taken up arms against US servicemen in Somalia.

But December 1992? That was the first instance of a coordinated terror attack planned and executed by an al-Qaida cell. It was not much of a success. And America didn’t take much notice.

Eight years later, a now well-established al-Qaida in Yemen attacked the USS Cole in Aden Harbor, killing 17 US sailors. Ten months earlier, the cell had attempted an attack on the USS The Sullivans, but failed — a plot only discovered after the USS Cole explosion. The investigation of the attack uncovered the truly transnational nature of al-Qaida, highlighting links to the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings and the Malaysia meeting between future 9/11 hijackers.

Al-Qaida at the time was a hub-and-spoke model. Abu Ali al-Harithi was the head of the Yemen spoke. In October 2002 he successfully orchestrated another maritime attack, this time against the French tanker Limburg. In November 2002 he became a smoking crater, courtesy of a Hellfire missile shot by a Predator drone.

For US policymakers, the al-Qaida threat in Yemen was, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Rising from the Ashes

They weren’t wrong. Cutting off the head of the snake withered the entire al-Qaida in Yemen cell. Al-Qaida did not conduct another major attack against US interests in Yemen until the embassy bombing in September 2008. One year later, the al-Qaida cell in Yemen sent Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up an airliner over Detroit. Thus, the ‘sudden’ Yemeni threat.

What comprised the years between 2002 and 2008, however, was not complete barrenness. Al-Qaida in Iraq leader al-Zarqawi had authorized and endorsed attacks in Yemen in 2004 and 2005. Also, al-Qaida had moved from its hub-and-spoke model to a franchising model. No longer did the central organization pick regional leaders and direct attacks. Over time, a regional group emerged, under the leadership of Nassir al-Wahishi. For simplicity’s sake, some intelligence organizations referred to the group as AQY – al-Qaida in Yemen. However, the group did not get an official nod from al-Qaida until almost two years later.

Despite the lack of an official endorsement, AQY walked and talked like an al-Qaida group. Nassir al-Wahishi, a former secretary for bin Laden in Afghanistan, had escaped from a Political Security Office jail with 23 other people in February 2006. His shura council all had al-Qaida-linked transnational jihadist credentials. And the goal of the group was to overthrow the Yemeni regime. Over the next two years AQY would not only conduct attacks against the Salih regime but also against westerners in Yemen. By 2008 AQY was actively planning and executing attacks against the US embassy and diplomatic personnel in Sanaa.

But regional groups do not attract the attention of US policymakers when their activities are confined to their countries. That, perhaps, is a mistake. Even the September 2008 multiple Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device attack against the US Embassy in Sanaa was not enough for a wholescale shift in US counterterrorism policy in Yemen. The creation of a larger peninsular group — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), comprised of the old AQY, a former split-off group, and a bunch of fugitive Saudi jihadists — did turn more heads. The US military presence in Yemen began to increase. But the hammer wasn’t lowered just yet.

Then came Anwar al-Awlaki, the dual US-Yemeni imam, a vocal advocate of violent jihad against the West. He had returned to Yemen in 2004 and had a few run-ins with Yemeni authorities and with prison sentences. But by 2009, al-Awlaki had become at the very least a prominent mouthpiece for AQAP. His going into hiding in March 2009 indicated a possibly more sinister connection. By his 2011 death, the United States was publicly referring to him as AQAP’s chief of external operations.

Al-Awlaki’s connection to AQAP began to reveal the group’s transnational aspirations. And that is when the US began to act. Under the Authorization for the use of Military Force (AUMF) against terrorists, the United States began authorizing drone strikes. The first was in December 2009. A week later, on Christmas Day, was the attempted bombing of NWA 253.

We know the rest of the story: the continued AQAP plots against the US, the continued drone strikes, the debate over targeted killings, the accusations that US counterterrorism actions were the very thing driving the al-Qaida threat from Yemen. However, regardless of who started it and who escalated it, one thing is now certain: Yemen is an active theater for jihad, and it is one battlefield in our War against Terror.

So, what’s our endgame?

But what does success in Yemen look like? Certainly, we can not hope to completely dismantle al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Wahishi learned from al-Harithi’s mistakes. As the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point states:

Al-Wihayshi wanted to avoid this outcome the second time around. He adapted Bin Laden’s blueprint to fit the local context, appointing local amirs in different governorates across the country. Al-Harithi never accomplished that level of organization and delegation. Just like Bin Laden, al-Wihayshi constructed a durable infrastructure that was designed to survive the loss of key leaders.

We cannot hope to have total defeat of al-Qaida the way the Saudis managed to defeat al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia. Yemen, unlike Saudi Arabia, has nowhere near the central government reach nor the intelligence capabilities to disrupt cells over and again until no one is left. The complex structure of tribes, families, political allegiances, blood feuds, reparations, and rebellions in Yemen also mean we certainly can not be sure there will be a time ‘no one is left’. Even without a person’s steadfast adherence to al-Qaida, revenge for a cousin’s killing, for example, can drive activities in support of AQAP.

It may happen that al-Qaida cells will continue to take over southern Yemeni cities. Those cells may continue a pattern of jihad against Yemeni security forces. It may happen that Yemen will completely fail as a state. The question I often received when explaining those possibilities was, “Why do we care?” This was not a question asked dismissively, but rather, an invitation to explain why Yemen’s stability is important to the United States.

Hand-wringing over the radicalization of the Yemeni population, the political balance between the northern Huthi rebellion and the southern secessionists, the loss of potable water, the scourge of khat, the outrage over Yemeni child brides, and the general future fate of Yemen as a state misses the key point: right or wrong, the United States will no longer care when it has determined the threat from Yemen has disappeared. Yemen, the poorest Arab state, has no other strategic value to the US.

That is not to say foreign assistance and diplomatic relations will stop: of course not. But the complex multi-pronged strategy toward Yemen will not last when the United States feels secure regarding the threat emanating from its borders. Without a strident transnational threat, Yemen becomes less Pakistan and more Bangladesh.

What will that look like?

First, al-Qaida will no longer stage large-scale plots against the West out of Yemen. Note, I said “the West” itself not Western interests. We’re talking about Yemen being a safehaven for planning and training for transnational attacks.

It is possible this is already coming to fruition. Certainly, the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and fellow American Samir Khan did not prevent AQAP’s plan to attack the United States in May 2012. The possible original driving forces of AQAP’s fight against the ‘far enemy’ are dead, but bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri is not.

In Yemen, the Obama administration’s focus on targeted killings has gone a long way toward eliminating much of the experienced, transnationally-minded AQAP leadership. The whack-a-mole approach to counterterrorism has its critics, and often rightfully so. Killing an operative will just lead to another operative to take his place. In the Yemeni case, however, those waiting in the wings are likely less inclined to plan large-scale attacks in the West. The death of Ibrahim al-Asiri and those he has trained would also eliminate a knowledge base. Al-Asiri allegedly was a target of an August 2013 strike, and was reportedly wounded.

In a 2011 paper published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the anonymous author — who continues fieldwork and cultivating contacts in the tribal regions of al-Jawf andMarib — takes a slightly different tack. The deaths of Americans Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki, he argues, will do little to diminish the threat to the homeland, as transnational operations are now part of AQAP’s strategic plan. Instead:

AQAP’s unusually capable strategic decision making reveals that the group’s greatest asset is also its most glaring vulnerability. The most direct way to reduce the group’s viability in Yemen, while simultaneously limiting its capacity to attack the United States at home, lies in removing those Yemeni leaders responsible for the group’s operational coherence: Nasir `Abd al-Kareem `Abdullah al-Wahayshi, Qasim Yahya Mahdi al-Raymi, Muhammad Sa`id Ali Hasan al-’Umda and `Adil bin `Abdullah bin Thabit al-`Abab

Regardless of what exactly constitutes AQAP’s center of gravity in regards to homeland strikes, the same argument applies. Ridding Yemen of AQAP entirely is not the answer; targeting the infrastructure and personalities essential to AQAP’s strategy of transnational attacks is.

The administration’s alleged expansion of its ‘signature strike’ criteria to Yemen fits within this narrative, especially given the more stringent measures applied to such strikes in Yemen as opposed to in Pakistan: clear indication an AQAP senior operative’s presence or infrastructure indicating a terrorist training. If we are concerned about the personalities and infrastructure allowing for the planning and training for transnational attacks, taking out obvious training camps will also help eliminate lower-level individuals who may be poised to conduct such attacks.

AQAP, of course, does not just operate in a vacuum. The influence and direction of Ayman al-Zawahiri heavily impacts AQAP’s strategic direction and plans.

However, al-Zawahiri likely is capitalizing on the basic ingredients for transnational jihad already found within the terrorist group. Yemen’s al-Qaida cohort are the only ones in the past few years attempting and almost succeeding with large-scale attacks in the West. With the opportunity gone, al-Zawahiri will likely instead continue endorsing what al-Qaida’s plots have become: attacks against Western and host nation interests within a country, and small-scale attacks in the West.

The latter types of attacks are of the ‘open source jihad’ variety, a concept advocated by AQAP propagandist Samir Khan. Not planned or directed by al-Qaida, perpetrators of open-source jihad in the West are self-selecting and use al-Qaida merely as inspiration — Nidal Hassan and Fort Hood, for example.

The August 2013 worldwide shuttering of multiple Western embassies, allegedly based on a conversation between al-Zawahiri and Nassir al-Wahishi, underscore the former: attacks within a host country against the West. Targeted killings will likely not lead to the end of this threat, the bread and butter of most regional groups. Purportedly, the August 2013 threat was to foreign oil workers, a common target. Will we be able to make Yemen safe for Westerners? Likely not.

However, the force protection status of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city, is illustrative of how far south the safety of westerners in Yemen has gone. American diplomats used to be able to live on the economy, shop at the local grocery store, and drive around without having to think of alternating routes for each trip. Then an AQY spinoff began active plans to attack the US Embassy. It almost succeeded in March 2008, with mortars missing their intended target and instead landing in the yard of the next-door girls’ school, killing two and wounding 19. The next month they attacked a fortified western housing compound, home to oil workers and to some embassy employees. In September multiple car bombs exploded at the embassy, killing 13 innocents.

Still, throughout the pattern of authorized departures and force protection restrictions, Sana’a still held a sense of security. Then the targeted attacks began within the capital city began. Four South Korean tourists had been killed at a site outside Sanaa in March 2009. Just three days later, in Sana’a, a suicide bomber targeted a convoy of South Korean investigators and relatives of the victims. In April 2010, British ambassador Tim Torlot survived a suicide bombing aimed at his car. That October, his deputy faced a mortar attack on her vehicle. Two years later, the 20-year security chief for the US Embassy, a Yemeni, was assassinated on his way to work. A year after that, this October 2013, a possible kidnapping plot against the German ambassador led to the death of her bodyguard outside a supermarket in an upscale neighborhood of the city.

It may not seem like a lot, but the attacks reflect the current security situation in the city. The feeling of siege continued with the massive violent protests outside the US embassy in 2012, during which a couple of hundred young men ripped the embassy’s sign from the outer wall, torched tires and a couple of vehicles, burned the American flag and breached the outer gates of the security entrance. A few months later, AQAP announced a $160,000 bounty in gold for the killing of the American ambassador to Yemen and $23,000 for the deaths of American soldiers in Yemen, in order “to encourage and inspire jihad.”

Today, US diplomats live in a sort of modified green zone, no longer residing in large houses in the upscale neighborhood on the other side of the city and instead camping out in buildings next to the embassy. For example, in recent years, only one hotel, the aging Sheraton near the embassy, was approved for visitors. This structure is now under the lease of the State Department.

Until Sanaa stops feeling like a war zone, Yemen’s plight may still hold the US’s attention. Perception is a powerful thing. Only continued coordination with the Hadi government and the full cooperation of the security officers, including the armed cop on the street, can ameliorate the situation. And that, on the end, may be the best argument for a multifaceted strategy toward Yemen.

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