Small Wars

This Week at War: Yemen’s al Qaeda Scam

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Yemen learns to profit from al Qaeda

The nearly successful Christmas Day downing of a Detroit-bound airliner has suddenly shifted the U.S. national security community’s focus to Yemen. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Nigerian-born "knicker bomber," reportedly confessed to being trained in Yemen by an al Qaeda group.

Yemen and its problems are suddenly on everyone’s agenda. On Jan. 1, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus announced a doubling in annual U.S. assistance to the country. On Jan. 28, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will host an international conference on Yemen, where he will no doubt call for increased international donations. It seems that whenever the international community discovers another al Qaeda franchise, a financial reward to the host seems to follow. Pakistan has perfected how to profit from this perverse incentive. Yemen is now showing itself to be an able student of the same technique.

Writing in Small Wars Journal, Lawrence Cline — a career military intelligence officer, Middle East foreign area officer, and an instructor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School — provides a comprehensive summary of Yemen’s political and economic challenges. According to Cline, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his government do not view al Qaeda’s presence in Yemen as their most important problem. To Saleh and his government, the Houthi rebellion in the Shiite northwest and the separatist unrest centered around the southern city of Aden (due to unresolved issues from the 1990 unification of Yemen) are far more urgent. Yemen’s problems do not stop there. The country is running out of both oil and water, hosts over 150,000 Somali refugees, and its trade suffers from the Horn of Africa’s ongoing piracy problem. Yemen is a obviously very troubled place and Saleh in understandably seeking out as much foreign assistance as he can.

In this context, Al Qaeda in Yemen and the Saleh government may have settled into a mutually beneficial relationship. According to Cline, Yemen’s government is not the focus of al Qaeda’s terror campaign. Instead, al Qaeda likely values the sanctuary it finds in Yemen’s remote areas and the access it enjoys to elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. Threatening the Yemeni government would risk these advantages.

From Saleh’s perspective, he has likely learned from Pakistan how rewarding al Qaeda’s presence — largely benign to him — can be. The impending deluge of U.S. aid, with Brown’s conference to add to the bounty, illustrates the perverse incentives offered to leaders like Saleh.

Does this mean that the United States should not assist Saleh and his government? At this point it has little choice; it can only access al Qaeda by partnering with Saleh, Yemen’s ministries, and its security forces. A decade after the bombing of USS Cole in the Aden harbor, the al Qaeda problem in Yemen seems as bad as ever. Over the past 10 years, the United States has provided funding and training to Yemen’s security forces, a program frustrated by corruption and perceived Yemeni indifference to al Qaeda. This matches the frustrations the U.S. suffers with its security assistance program in Pakistan. Neither should be a surprise given the current incentives.

The solution is for the U.S. government to develop alternate paths to al Qaeda that bypass those local institutions that lack an incentive to confront al Qaeda. It seems as if the CIA officers recently killed at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan were attempting to create such an alternate path. Although that operation suffered a disastrous setback, such efforts are one of the few ways the U.S. can keep its reluctant partners honest.

Maj. Gen. Flynn wants social scientists, not military intelligence officers

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, has ordered a major overhaul of the intelligence analysis effort in that country. Flynn took the highly unorthodox step of publishing his reorganization order, embedded in a report, through the website of the Center for a New American Security.

Flynn has ordered the military intelligence structure in Afghanistan to redirect its focus away from enemy insurgent groups and instead focus on "fundamental questions about the envi­ronment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade." Flynn’s justification for this overhaul in the analysis effort is the population-focused counterinsurgency mission now assigned to coalition forces. According to Flynn:

What we conclude is there must be a concurrent effort under the ISAF com­mander’s strategy to acquire and provide knowledge about the population, the economy, the government, and other aspects of the dynamic environment we are trying to shape, secure, and successfully leave behind. Until now, intelligence efforts in this area have been token and ineffectual, particularly at the regional command level.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s counterinsurgency strategy has tasked Army and Marine Corps infantry battalions with being not only warfighters, but also civil administrators, municipal engineers, and local politicians. Given this mission, Flynn has concluded that such an expanded list of tasks needs an expanded array of intelligence products to match. Perhaps just as critical to Flynn (and also mentioned in his report) was the apparent embarrassment he and his staff suffered when they were unable to provide the White House staff with more than the most rudimentary information on key Afghan districts.

Flynn’s analysts will now focus on local demography, economics, sociology, and politics instead of just the enemy’s structure and battlefield positions, the traditional focus of tactical military intelligence. Flynn’s analysts will do this by attempting to become multidisciplinary experts on a specific piece of territory.

Such an overhaul seems both an intellectual stretch and an organizational gamble. The general is asking his military intelligence personnel to perform the research normally done by graduate-level anthropologists, economists, and other professionals in the social sciences. Flynn’s order for analysts to study all the disciplines within a geographic area rather than specialize on a particular function only magnifies this problem. To produce valid research, professional social scientists spend years learning the local culture and collecting and analyzing data. The work product of Flynn’s redirected analysts is likely to vary widely in quality and usefulness.

Second, Flynn has called for military leaders in Afghanistan to select "the best, most extroverted and hungriest analysts" to serve in the new analysis positions he is creating. Combat commanders will still face a determined and clever enemy and are not likely to part with those intelligence officers who they believe can provide the battlefield intelligence that will keep their troops alive.

Flynn’s overhaul is an understandable response to both the counterinsurgency mandate and to his command’s admittedly poor support to the White House during the Afghan policy review. But it remains to be seen whether his new structure will produce useful intelligence for troops in the field or gain the cooperation of commanders.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating