x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

As long as Yemen is destitute, al Qa'eda will thrive

Defeating AQAP cannot be achieved by force alone, or even predominately by military means. Virtually every environmental, economic and demographic challenge imaginable can be found in Yemen. 

An uneasy confluence of events in the last two weeks - the cargo bomb plot and the sweeping victory in the American elections by an increasingly hawkish Republican party - threatens to make a tense and difficult relationship between the United States and Yemen more challenging as we enter a pivotal moment in terrorism's newest battlefield.

What is important to note is that despite its headline-grabbing nature, and in spite of the clamour and the sudden rush for information, the attempted attack on cargo planes bound for the United States does not change anything about al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) or how the group should be dealt with. The plot reveals details about the group, but does not demand a new course of action. If anything, it solidifies the existing need for a comprehensive and nuanced strategy toward a desperately poor country that is teetering on the brink of dissolution.

AQAP is approaching the second anniversary of its establishment, which merged the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qa'eda. For more than two years before that, the Yemeni branch had been growing in stature and ability, striking with periodic attacks on oil infrastructure, security officers, tourists and embassies. After the merger, it drew the most headlines from a brazen near miss on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi official most responsible for counter-terrorism, and for the attempted Christmas Day suicide bombing on an airline over Detroit.

Their strategy can be looked at in two ways - their goals and how they aim to achieve them. The ultimate, and unrealistic, goal is the new caliphate, the jihadi's triumphalist pipe dream. The step before that is the overthrow of the "apostate" Saudi government. But to be able to strike inside the kingdom they need space to operate, a safe haven free of foreign interference.

Yemen has provided that space. Despite assurances that Sana'a is capable of fighting al Qa'eda - a claim that Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al Qirbi, restated at the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi on Sunday - it remains a key recruiting ground for attracting hardened and experienced warriors to the cause.

That is why the cargo bomb plot can be seen as a continuation of their progress, rather than a warning sign of a bold new direction. Even though the plot was technically a failure, it once again thrust AQAP on to the front pages around the world, which can only help convince jihadis that the best place to wage holy war is in Yemen.

What we are dealing with is a flexible, cautious, intelligent and ambitious group, marked more by patience than by the normal bloodlust of revolutionaries. The response to them has to echo these qualities or it will end in a repeating cycle of failure. We know this because we've already seen it: al Qa'eda in Yemen was largely defeated in 2003, and disengagement by both Washington and Sana'a allowed it to come back in this new and more dangerous generation.

Defeating AQAP cannot be achieved by force alone, or even predominately by military means. Virtually every environmental, economic and demographic challenge imaginable can be found in Yemen. It is running out of oil and water, but has a surplus of the most dangerous element in the world - vast masses of unemployed and desperate young men, with more testosterone and unfulfilled dreams than opportunity. Yemen's structural problems, if unmet, will only exacerbate this and help AQAP achieve its immediate goal.

The president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose patronage network is crumbling and whose power is being challenged by rebellions in the north and south, as well as by general discontent, seems unable to deal with all these issues. AQAP is far from the worst of his problems - the Houthi rebellion in the north and the southern secessionist movement have deeper historical roots and are more vexing military and political challenges than the terrorist outfit - but he is eager to take them on in order to get US military aid.

It is true that a combination of Mr Saleh's military and CIA actions, including drone attacks and assassinations, might be able to eradicate the current generation of al Qa'eda. It is even true that they might be able to weed out the cells around the country, and a clever strategy - one that includes directly negotiating with and providing aid to the tribes, cutting out a corrupt and unwelcome centre - could persuade the tribes not to offer safe havens to jihadis. It is even possible to imagine a near future where power in Yemen is eased away from the centre, maintaining a tenuous balance between Yemeni Republicanism and a more ancient tribal democracy.

These should all be US goals. What is foolhardy to imagine is that this will be the last generation of al Qa'eda in Yemen if the vast economic issues are not addressed.

Unfortunately, addressing these will be difficult and long term. The US has previously shown a willingness to ignore Yemen, aside from maintaining a military focus on the region. And Yemen's emergence as a security issue comes at a bad time - the Republican Party has long viewed foreign aid as a squishy and weak priority.

The US president Barack Obama has long been waging an almost clandestine war inside Yemen, and has shown some skill in subtly moving aid away from the corrupt centre. But despite his aggressive nature, he is still painted as "weak on terrorism", and it will be easy for an empowered and still hungry GOP to deny his requests for non-military aid as appeasing a foreign dictator. Mr Obama has to push back against this, showing how doing the right thing is good for security, and that building up Yemen, rather than merely bombing it, is the only way not to get mired in endless military engagement.

Brian O'Neill is a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer. He is currently an independent analyst in Chicago