x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Yemen remains the ignored child of extremism

Osama bin Laden's death may turn Yemen into an al Qa'eda stronghold if calls for political reform in the country are not addressed quickly.

While the media scrutinises Pakistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, his ancestral homeland once again risks fading into the background at the world's peril.

Yemen's impoverished environment, made worse by rising food prices, continues to prove fertile ground for the kind of despair that can drive recruitment to extremist movements such as al Qa'eda.

With the symbolic and actual head of al Qa'eda now vanquished, there lies a real chance that affiliate groups will gain in stature and prominence elsewhere. Nowhere is this scenario more likely, and more threatening, than in the fragile and protest-ridden state of Yemen.

At the heart of Yemen's challenge lies President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose refusal to step down from power has further broken the country's fractured governance. Efforts to implement a counterterrorist strategy have been diverted to keeping what meagre peace remains amid country-wide protests, and Washington has been all too eager to step back and let the GCC take the reins on a country the United States has uncomfortably supported for over a decade.

Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is well aware of the crumbling security structure, and has benefitted from Yemen's porous borders, tribal conflicts, and impoverished environment for decades. With leaders in Sana'a turning a blind eye, key figures have roosted in the country's villages and mountains, exploiting what leverage they have been able to extract through tribal connections and conflict. Anwar al Awlaki, the internet-savvy al Qa'eda recruiter credited with guiding the "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is said to reside there. So too does Nasser al Wuhayshi, bin Laden's former secretary who was handed AQAP leadership in 2009. He is one of the more radical members to take up the mantle.

Such fixtures within Yemen do not represent its whole, but the whole is struggling to meet basic daily needs, and sees little future in a US policy driven by drone strikes and limited military engagement. Washington and its allies need to pursue the fullest engagement possible in a country on the brink - beyond the targeted assassinations that have formed the backbone of western policy for years.

It is, of course, up to young Yemenis themselves to alter their own future and turn their back on radical elements that might gain ground in bin Laden's absence. But with bin Laden gone, it's in the world's interest to help them get there.