The Obama administration stepped up political and counterterrorism efforts in Yemen this week after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Flight 253 “underwear bomber,” was linked to the Yemen-based extremists al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. After briefly closing their Yemeni embassies, the U.S. and Britain reopened their heavily fortified compounds in the capital, Sanaa, this week. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown scheduled an international conference later in January to address threats emanating from Yemen, while the Obama administration suspended repatriations of Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo and indicated it would increase counterterrorism aid to the government of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. “We see global implications from the war in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by al Qaida in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorist attacks,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula publicly claimed responsibility for Abdulmutallab’s failed airliner attack.
Already the Arab world’s poorest state, with unemployment above 35 percent, Yemen is plagued by a weak central government and civil war, along with severe water shortages, dwindling oil reserves, and one of the world’s youngest populations, making it a prime recruiting and operational base for al Qaida. The 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors, was launched in Yemen, and there are estimated to be several hundred al Qaida operatives currently in the country, much of which is effectively ungoverned. Yemeni forces, assisted by U.S. intelligence, have killed several al Qaida fighters in recent raids, raising hopes that the government may increase pressure on the terrorist group.
What the editorials said
Some wonder if the U.S. should launch a “military offensive” in Yemen, said The Washington Post. The truth is, “it already has.” CIA and special forces are in the country, providing training, weapons, and intelligence to government troops, which carried out “two major raids” against al Qaida over the past month.
The Yemeni government does appear to be cooperating, said The New York Times. But it is “corrupt and repressive,” and “the country is foundering in so many ways that it may be on the verge of collapse.” That’s why an international effort to address Yemen’s “desperate economic, political, and social problems” is essential. “If these problems are not dealt with, there can be no hope of defeating al Qaida.”
What the columnists said
Now that Yemen is on the front page, the White House is acting tough, said Stephen Hayes in The Weekly Standard. But before a would-be suicide bomber casually boarded Flight 253, Obama was planning to send “extremely dangerous” Yemeni terrorists from Guantánamo back to their home country, on the naïve assumption that they could be safely reintegrated into society. In fact, the administration recently repatriated six Yemenis from Gitmo, despite the fact that Yemen is “a well-known hotbed of al Qaida activity.”
George W. Bush must have been naïve, too, said Bruce Riedel in TheDailyBeast.com. The man who is the No. 2 leader of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Said Ali al-Shihri, was released from Gitmo by the Bush/Cheney administration. Obama actually has been focused on Yemen since his inauguration, quietly increasing counterterrorism efforts there. But for Obama, as for Bush, “controlling lawless spaces where al Qaida thrives” won’t be easy.
Nor will it be easy to manage relations with Yemen’s “primitive, criminal” government, said Victoria Clark in the London Independent. The U.S.’s alliance with the deeply unpopular Saleh regime—along with its invasion of Iraq—has killed its “hearts-and-minds” campaign in Yemen before it could even begin. So let’s not compound our difficulties, said Marc Lynch in ForeignPolicy.com. Although direct intervention in Yemen is “obviously ludicrous,” political criticism from the Right could still tempt the White House to stumble into a strategic “sinkhole.” Instead, it should “be patient, build intelligence,” and hit al Qaida targets when it can do so without incurring heavy “civilian costs,” which would only help the radicals. Overreacting may have political benefits for Obama, but it will only make matters worse.