x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Yemen in the spotlight

The announcement by the US President Barack Obama that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who allegedly attempted to blow up an airline over the US on Christmas Day, was trained by al Qa'eda in Yemen, has put that country under renewed international scrutiny. A summit will convene in London later this month to discuss ways of stopping Yemen becoming a refuge for violent militants.

The announcement by the US President Barack Obama that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man who allegedly attempted to blow up an airline over the US on Christmas Day, was trained by al Qa'eda in Yemen, has put that country under renewed international scrutiny. "World leaders are to hold a summit in London to discuss ways of stopping Yemen becoming a terrorist breeding ground after it emerged that the Detroit bomber met al Qa'eda within months of his arrival in the country," The Daily Telegraph reported. "Gordon Brown called the meeting for later this month as it became clear that the Christmas Day airline bomb attack had been planned in the Middle Eastern state. "The White House said that United States President Barack Obama had given his support to the talks, which will run alongside a conference on Afghanistan planned for the same day. "Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian who allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb on an aeroplane flying over the US city of Detroit on Christmas Day, is said to have told investigators from the FBI that he was radicalised and trained in Yemen within the last six months." In his weekly address from The White House, Mr Obama said: "the investigation into the Christmas Day incident continues, and we're learning more about the suspect. We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies. It appears that he joined an affiliate of al Qa'eda, and that this group - al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] - trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America." Mr Obama warned: "all those involved in the attempted act of terrorism on Christmas must know - you too will be held to account." Meanwhile, The National reported: "The looming impact of Yemen's deepening instability, including transnational terrorism, refugee flows and ripening ground for proxy battles with Iran, is shaping up to be the GCC's biggest security challenge in decades, according to regional analysts. "Perhaps not since Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait in 1990, they say, has the six-member regional grouping been faced with the spectre of such myriad threats. " 'If left unattended, if we leave Yemen alone without help on the security, economic and development fronts, sooner or later its problems will undermine the stability of the UAE and GCC,' said Mustafa Alani, head of Security and Terrorism Studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. 'I think if no major help is offered to Yemen, collectively or by individual countries, we are going to be a victim of that conflict.'" At Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch said: "The rush to partner with the Yemeni government to 'tackle extremism', as Gordon Brown says, illustrates the need to think carefully about the political dimension. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is to a great extent the problem, not the solution. Ever since Saleh recanted on his vow to not seek re-election and cheated his way to victory over Faisal bin Shamlan (who symbolically died this week), Yemen's political system has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Corruption, always bad, has skyrocketed. So have human rights abuses and political repression, including a wide range of attacks on media freedoms. Heavy-handed security services have a lot to do with the outbreak and perpetuation of the Houthi rebellion; as Joost Hilterman points out, 'the Houthi leadership has portrayed its position as purely defensive against acts of state oppression and attacks by the Yemeni army.' In short, partnering with the Yemeni government to provide honest, legitimate government may seem like a good response, but it is not likely to succeed. If you like working with Hamid Karzai, you're going to love Ali Abdullah Saleh. "The Saleh government is more preoccupied with the Houthi rebellion, raging since 2004, than with AQAP even if we care more about the latter. The Yemeni government is also worried about the southern insurrection, and about keeping Saleh in power at any cost. Combating 'extremism' is a vague formulation which misses the complexities of these multiple insurgencies and political challenges." In Newsweek, Christopher Dickey wrote: "At the widely respected Intelligence Division of the New York City Police Department, analyst Mitchell Silber divides the Qa'eda threat into three categories: the core organisation of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri that carried out the 9/11 attacks; the affiliates in Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, and elsewhere that want the prestige of the Qa'eda connection but have less sophisticated capabilities; and 'homegrown' terrorists who are inspired by al Qa'eda's ideology but don't have much access to training or support networks. The United States has made great progress in disrupting the first group: US officials claim that Predator strikes along the Afghan-Pakistani border have killed roughly a dozen out of the top 20 Qa'eda leaders in the past two years. But that's driving bad guys in the other two groups - who are more likely to pursue small-scale attacks - to assume a higher profile. "The Qa'eda affiliates used to focus entirely on local agendas. But as those in Somalia and Yemen have become the target of mounting attacks by America's regional allies and sometimes directly by US weapons and forces, they've started attracting and cultivating would-be jihadis from the United States itself. Young Somali-Americans who left a world of poverty and gangs in Minnesota to take up jihad in the land of their fathers have fallen in with groups like the Qa'eda-linked Al-Shabab that turned some of them into suicide bombers. None have brought the shadow war in Mogadishu back to Minneapolis, but the potential is there. "Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, tried to take that next step in the skies over Michigan. 'When you have an affiliate projecting itself into the US environment, that's a big deal,' says an American veteran of the intelligence wars against Islamic extremists who prefers that his identity and that of his agency remain anonymous. The group previously focused most of its energies on attacking the Saudi royal family and Saudi interests. 'It had a very clear local agenda, but it also decided to move globally,' says the intelligence officer. 'To the extent that this idea takes root among other affiliates, the US homeland will become more of a target.'" Dickey noted: "a failed operation that garners this much media attention is as good as a victory for an aspiring extremist group. The publicity is a boon to recruitment. 'Small events are important to them right now,' says the veteran intelligence officer. 'If you are sitting in a cave in Afghanistan or Yemen you can say, "Not half bad - we scared the s--t out of them in America. We were able to get into the homeland. We knocked them back some."'" In The National, Tony Karon concluded: "Mr Obama is unlikely to go to war in Yemen, if for no other reason than that dealing with the resurgent Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan has forced him to vastly increase troop commitments there. Even Mr Bush was chastened by his failure to prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by his final years in office was reaching out to Iran - the third pillar of his 'Axis of Evil' - for co-operation in both theatres. It was at this time that Mr Bush appointed the cool-headed realist Robert Gates as his defence secretary; Mr Gates remains at the Pentagon, and has emerged as an influential adviser. "During the recent White House review of whether to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, Mr Gates publicly cautioned that expanding the US 'footprint' would fuel the Taliban insurgency against a perceived occupation. His recognition that the very presence of American troops in a Muslim country spurs resistance suggests that Washington has learnt a lesson that will deter it from establishing a visible troop presence in Yemen."

pwoodward@thenational.ae