Yemen: A State to Watch in 2011

Yemen: A State to Watch in 2011

Yemen is increasingly becoming an area of serious concern for the United States. In the last ten years, at least three major terror plots have originated in the country: the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas day 2009, and the shipping of bombs concealed within computer printers to the U.S. in November of 2010. January 23rd will mark the two-year anniversary of the union of Al Qaeda’s Saudi and Yemeni branches; the conglomerate is now known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

There is significant reason to believe that another major Yemen-based terror plot will be carried out. Not only has Al Qaeda essentially designated the country as its regional base of operations, but Yemen’s government is woefully inept; its inefficacy allowed Al Qaeda to make major incursions and establish a strong base of support. With this foundation established, many prominent Al Qaeda leaders have set up shop in Yemen and transformed their branch into a flagship for the organization as a whole. In short, the conditions within Yemen are nearly perfect for mounting the global jihad that Al Qaeda envisions.

In Yemen, Al Qaeda is strongest where the state is weakest. This is especially true in the vast expanses of rugged terrain east of the capital, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral home. Remote and lawless, these areas are ruled by powerful tribes that have traditionally been the source of social authority and continue to be the object of allegiance for most Yemenis. These tribes are fundamentally at odds with the concept of central governance, and so are largely sympathetic to Al Qaeda’s struggle against Ali Abdullah Saleh’s repressive regime.

Forces representing conservative Sunni Islam have steadily exploited this void created by the decay of government institutions. For lack of government-sponsored education, Al Qaeda’s initiatives to bring teachers to these remote areas have been well received. by their inhabitants.

Saudi Arabia is also largely responsible for the proliferation of its brand of Sunnism to its southern neighbor. The Saudis encouraged the establishment of an expansive network of religious schools that subscribe to the reactionary Salafist school of thought, which has nicely complemented Yemen’s archaic tribal mores.

With U.S. pressure on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the ensuing dispersal of the organization’s traditional hierarchy, many of Al Qaeda’s most talented figures have gravitated toward Yemen. Most prominent among them is the American born and educated Anwar al-Awlaki, an important spiritual leader and recruiter. Young and charismatic, al-Awlaki has used the internet effectively to propagate Al Qaeda’s word, and his influence is far-reaching; he is even thought to have been in contact with several of the 9/11 hijackers while they plotted their attack.

Other lower-profile but clearly talented Al Qaeda operatives have been active in Yemen. “Inspire,” a well-polished English language publication attributed to the group’s Arabian Peninsula branch, and the sophisticated nature of the November bomb plot reveals the presence of one or more technologically skilled individuals working for the organization in Yemen. Signs such as these may indicate that the latest generation of the Al Qaeda brain trust is now centered in Yemen.

With a cadre of competent, motivated members and a state unable to stop them, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is likely capable of carrying out a major attack within the year. Despite the increasing urgency of the situation, the U.S. has spread itself too thin between Iraq and Afghanistan to devote resources to counter terrorism in the country. In Yemen’s precarious situation, Al Qaeda currently holds the upper hand over the country’s government and its U.S. backers.

Success for Al Qaeda in the country is not necessarily contingent upon the group overthrowing the government. Rather, they seek a base from which they can continue to conduct a war of attrition against U.S. influence in the region. For the time being, they are certainly capable of sustaining this fight.