Al-Qaida: the Yemen factor

A near-miss airline attack refocuses attention on al-Qaida's diffused potency, and underlines the depth of Barack Obama's predicament

The closing weeks of 2009 have seen an intensive focus among western policy-makers and media on the war in Afghanistan. The long-awaited surge in American troop deployments ordered by President Barack Obama, whose effects will be seen as 2010 unfolds, sets the scene for increased combat. The new United States strategy is mainly a response to the increased activity of Taliban and other militias; there are even claims by Mulla Sangeen that 80% of Afghanistan is under Taliban influence (see “Taliban claim control of over 80pc of Afghanistan”, PakTribune, 22 December 2009). This may be an exaggeration, but the many elements opposed both to the Hamid Karzai regime and the foreign military presence in Afghanistan have undoubtedly increased the movement’s influence (see “Afghanistan: from insurgency to insurrection”, 8 October 2009).

There is something of a conundrum here, for the surge is being launched in a period where many argue that al-Qaida itself - the original target of the invasion of Afghan in October 2001, rather than its Taliban hosts - is actually in decline. This narrative cites the retreat of key al-Qaida leaders to western Pakistani districts where they are under constant risk of drone-attacks (which have killed many middle-ranking operatives) and are pressed by the Pakistani army to contend that al-Qaida is a diminishing threat. The implication is that if the Taliban in Afghanistan can be sufficiently squeezed into a degree of political acquiescence, then the war there can actually be won.

True, civil planners in the United States take a far more cautious view on this issue than their military equivalents (see Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Civilian, military planners have different views on new approach to Afghanistan”, Washington Post, 26 December 2009). But the military strategists who played a central role in the discussions preceding the new strategy are at the forefront of policy, and they are active in disseminating the case that the al-Qaida movement is in decline.

The call of home

This makes Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab’s attempt on 25 December 2009 to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight as it approached Detroit after its journey from Amsterdam even more worrying. There is still more speculation than hard fact about the operation, but what little detailed information there is suggests that the young Nigerian had some connections with Yemen.

Most of the focus of the United States war on al-Qaida since 9/11 has been on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; relatively little attention has been given to the two states on either side of the Gulf of Aden - Yemen and Somalia. Any surplus resources away from the middle east and southwest Asia have tended to be devoted to Algeria and Mali as potential sites for al-Qaida activity.

True, Washington has looked with concern at Somalia as the internal troubles of this “failed state” have intensified; the expanding power of the al-Shabab Islamist militias - which may have loose connections with al-Qaida - in Somalia have deepened the US’s involvement here (see Harun Hassan & David Hayes, “Somalia: between violence and hope”, 15 July 2009). There is much clearer evidence, however, that Al-Qaida is active in Yemen; indeed, the group calling itself “Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) has claimed responsibility for the Northwest Airlines attack.

Four elements of the Yemeni context are relevant in clarifying a complex situation:

* Many Yemenis fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and were welcomed back afterwards. Osama bin Laden himself is half-Yemeni.  More recently, a Saudi clampdown and conflict in western Pakistan have encouraged many more Yemeni paramilitaries to return home (see Ginny Hill, “Yemen: the weakest link”, 31 March 2009)

* The Yemeni state does not control much of its territory, and its capabilities are further limited by a rebellion in the north; the latter is being waged with Saudi aid, including cross-border bombing raids by Royal Saudi air force F-15 strike-aircraft (see Michael Horton, “Borderline Crisis”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, January 2010).  A separatist movement in the south presents yet further problems to a beleaguered government

* The government lacks the resources to maintain security. Yemen faces severe economic difficulties, in part because its oil reserves are now severely depleted and because it has been badly affected by the international financial downturn (see Fred Halliday, “Yemen: travails of unity”, 3 July 2009)

* There has long been an Islamist paramilitary movement within the country; past attacks include the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbour in 2000 and the attack on the Limburg tanker in 2002 (see Fred Halliday, "Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix", 13 July 2007).

AQAP received a particular boost in February 2006 when twenty-three prisoners escaped from a prison in Sana’a. The group, which appears to have had support from sympathetic security officials, included the current AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi (see Sudarsan Raghavan, “Al-Qaeda group in Yemen gaining prominence”, Washington Post, 28 December 2009). In the subsequent period AQAP has become steadily more active; for example, it launched an attack on the US embassy in Sana’a and tried to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s head of counter-terrorism.

The developments in Yemen in these four years have already prompted a strong response from the United States. The Pentagon has more than doubled military aid to Yemen, and committed over $70 million to training Yemeni security forces. There is a US special-forces presence in the country, and strong support from Washington for air-strikes against presumed AQAP targets; these include two bombing-raids on 17 and 24 December 2009 that are reported to have killed more than sixty militants (see Barbara Starr, “U.S. fears Yemen a safe haven for al Qaeda”, CNN, 28 December 2009).

The government of Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, is working increasingly closely with the United States. The connection was expanded following a visit from the head of US Central Command, General David H Petraeus, in July 2009. The full extent of the cooperation is hidden, but it is likely that US forces are directly involved in Yemen’s internal operations - quite probably with armed drones and possibly US carrier-based strike-aircraft (see Eric Schmitt & Robert F Worth, “U.S. Widens Terror War to Yemen, a Qaeda Bastion”, New York Times, 27 December 2009).

The inner story

The rhetorical force of President Obama’s response to the Northwest Airlines attack makes it more than likely that Yemen will evolve into another military front against al-Qaida. This in turn will increase the perception that, after apparent reversals in Iraq and western Pakistan, the movement has staged a major comeback.

The problem with this narrative is that it perceives al-Qaida as a clearly-structured and hierarchical movement with a coherent world plan. The reality, supported by developments in Yemen, is more complex (see Fawaz Gerges, “Al-Qaida today: a movement at the crossroads”, 14 May 2009). It is more accurate to say that al-Qaida has elements of a movement, a belief-system, a franchise and a very informal cluster of networks, yet at the same time it is widely dispersed and has relatively few internal interconnections.

Many of the informal networks revolve around Islamist paramilitaries who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s or in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 2000s. Some of the links have been consolidated by groups coalescing in detention-centres across the world, including Guantánamo. There are also indications that paramilitaries of several nationalities have moved to Yemen in recent years.

The term “al-Qaida” is therefore best used to connote a loose rather than a ight or integrated movement. It is thus possible for the “old” leadership in western Pakistan to be under pressure while the broader movement continues to evolve. Similarly, it is also possible for the movement to have lost support in Iraq, Pakistan and the wider Islamic world (in large part because of the civilian deaths its attacks have inflicted) while it is still capable of attracting dedicated young men - including the scion of a wealthy Nigerian family - prepared to give their lives to the cause (see “Al-Qaida’s afterlife”, 29 May 2008).

The US-led war in Yemen is likely to expand in the early months of 2010. It is not easy to see what else the Obama administration feels it can do, given that the Christmas Day attack came close to killing hundreds of people above Detroit. 

But if the issue is seen through the other end of the telescope - a task that becomes ever more vital - and an increased American involvement in Yemen may well prove to be a hugely welcome gift to al-Qaida and its affiliates. Already its propagandists are at work, pointing to the civilian casualties of the December air-raids (as of those in the coalition’s latest Afghanistan attacks).  They will go on to develop a very clear narrative of the “far enemy” now extending its war against Islam to yet another country.

Barack Obama may make an impressive speech on relations with the Islamic world in his Cairo speech of June 2009 - but this is seen as merely a sham. Instead, what will be portrayed is a “crusader” enemy that occupies Iraq and Afghanistan, exerts control over the Pakistani government, equips and aids the “Zionist” armed forces that suppress the Palestinians, and now kills Muslims in yet another country. It is a powerful and dangerous narrative, and one that retains great potency.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

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In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers’s books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed; and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010) 

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001 

Bradford’s peace-studies department now broadcasts regular podcasts on its work, including a regular commentary from Paul Rogers on international-security issues. Listen/watch here