Since the failed terrorist attack on a passenger aircraft approaching Detroit airport on 25 December 2009, international attention on the situation in Yemen has been increasing. The young Nigerian would-be bomber had apparently been trained in Yemen. Against this background, Western governments in particular have referred to the growing importance of this southern Arabian country as a base and safe haven for the al-Qaida network. Accordingly, the question of counter-terrorism in Yemen has become an important issue in international security policy, at least for the time being.
The US government immediately announced its intention to increase economic and military aid and to intensify counter-terrorism cooperation with the Yemenite security forces. In a conference called at short notice at the end of January 2010 in London, it was decided to create an international grouping, called “Friends of Yemen”. Its mission is to assist Sanaa in addressing the range of challenges facing the country.
The emphasis on reform and assistance for sustainable development indicates that the West has, to some extent, learned from its earlier mistakes in counter-terrorism efforts and no longer places a one-sided emphasis on military and intelligence-based measures. The initial overblown rhetoric identifying Yemen as a third front in the so-called “War on Terrorism”, together with Afghanistan and Iraq, was quickly dampened. Demands for deployments of US troops against “terrorist bases” in Yemen were voiced in Congress, but quickly rebutted.
Nevertheless, doubts remain as to whether the strategy pursued by the Western governments will improve the situation in Yemen. The country’s diverse domestic political interests are a complex affair, marked by conflicts in north and south as well as by socio-economic challenges. The core dilemma of the West is that close cooperation with the central government in Sanaa, which is a near-indispensable part of its counter-terrorism efforts, threatens to aggravate the very same domestic constellation that facilitated the expansion of al-Qaida in Yemen in the first place. Furthermore, the instable situation in Yemen is due to regional factors that must be taken into account in international crisis management.
Unless the local conflicts in Yemen are peacefully resolved and the threat of terrorism is contained, the strategically important region encompassing the Horn of Africa and the south of the Arabian Peninsula is in danger of further destabilization. For the West, the future of Yemen is linked to important security, energy, and business interests. Ignoring the Yemen problem is therefore not an option. Instead, the core challenge is to formulate a strategy that takes the specific local and regional conditions into account.
Roland Popp is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) in Zurich.
Related Material from the Atlantic Community:
- Brian O'Neill: The West Should Proceed with Caution in Yemen
- Abbas Daiyar: Terrorists Are Winning the Media War
- Editorial Team: Is Obama too Soft on Terror?