Ignoring Yemen at Our Peril
Last week's mail bombs could have taken a horrific toll. Next time, the world might not be so lucky.
Seven years ago this month, al Qaeda in Yemen was on its last legs, worn down by years of U.S. and Yemeni strikes. The group’s original leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was dead, the target of a November 2002 strike by an unmanned CIA drone.
His replacement, an amputee named Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, fared little better. One year after the death of his boss, the veteran of the fighting in Bosnia and Chechnya was presiding over an organization in disarray. Like a general without an army, al-Ahdal was out of options. In November 2003, he was tracked down to a safe house on the outskirts of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. A last-minute mediator from the president’s office prevented a shootout in the residential neighborhood, convincing al-Ahdal to surrender. Just like that, the threat had been eliminated. Al Qaeda in Yemen was defeated.
Since then, things have not gone so well. Edmund Hull, the United States’ first post-September 11 ambassador to Yemen, left the country in the summer of 2004. His departure marked a turning point for U.S. priorities in Yemen. No longer was al Qaeda a top concern. Now, it was election reforms and anti-corruption campaigns that took center stage, as part of the Bush administration’s grand scheme to democratize the Middle East. President Ali Abdullah Salih, who had been part of the solution on al Qaeda, was increasingly seen as part of the problem on reform. U.S. funding dwindled to embarrassingly low levels. Absent a terrorist threat, Yemen was no longer important.
The Yemeni government was just as distracted. Instead of working to secure the victory, it directed its attention and military resources against an armed rebellion in the country’s far north that began in June 2004. The on-again, off-again civil war has since gone through six different rounds, draining the country’s coffers and exacerbating tribal fault lines.
Both countries were guilty of lapsed vigilance. Years of dithering and distractions left each unprepared for a resurgence. The spark came early one morning in February 2006, when 23 al Qaeda suspects tunneled out of a maximum-security prison on the edge of Sanaa and into a neighboring mosque, where they performed the dawn prayer before walking out the front door to freedom.
Hampered by inattention and the resulting sketchy intelligence reports, U.S. officials focused on what they knew. They concentrated their efforts on Jamal al-Badawi and Jabir al-Banna, the two escapees on the FBI’s most wanted list. But as is so often the case, it was what and who the U.S. didn’t know that would, in the end, be the most damaging.
Instead of al-Badawi and al-Banna, it was Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi who would turn out to be the most dangerous fugitives, resurrecting al Qaeda and taking aim at U.S. interests and even the American homeland. Al-Badawi and al-Banna were yesterday’s threats, the last survivors of a fading generation. Al-Wihayshi and al-Raymi were the future.
Both had spent time studying under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, supplementing their conversations and lessons with time in al Qaeda training camps. Al-Wihayshi, the tiny, wispy figure, was a bin Laden favorite. The tall Saudi selected the short Yemeni to serve as his understudy and personal secretary. The four-year apprenticeship would serve al-Wihayshi well when he began to build his own branch of al Qaeda in the aftermath of the prison break. Bin Laden’s blueprints in Afghanistan served as his model for the new organization in Yemen.
But still the threat was ignored. Al-Wihayshi’s efforts were taking place in the eastern governorates of Marib and al-Jawf, far from Yemen’s centers of power, out of sight and unknown. In 2006, the year al-Wihayshi escaped and began to rebuild, U.S. funding to Yemen totaled a paltry $ 4.6 million, the lowest it had been since September 11.
Neither the United States nor Yemen treated the prison break as anything other than aberration, a one-off event with few long-term consequences. The continued neglect in the face of mounting evidence — suicide attacks, assassinations, and statements of intent — represents a failure of imagination on a colossal scale — and the U.S. is still paying the price.
It would be another two years before U.S. officials realized that, once again, they had a serious problem in Yemen. In September 2008, seven men in two cars launched a well-organized assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, which if not for the quick thinking and brave actions of a private Yemeni security guard, who was killed in the attack, might have been much bloodier than it was. A handful of civilians, including one American, were killed in the shootout along with all seven attackers.
Months later, in January 2009, two former Guantánamo Bay detainees, both of whom the U.S. had released, showed up in a video sitting beside al-Wihayshi and al-Raymi and together they announced the formation of a new regional organization, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Almost immediately, the newly merged group went after the man at the top of its hit list, Muhammad bin Nayyif, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of the interior and the single biggest threat to its continued existence.
The ingenious assassination attempt used one of bin Nayyif’s earlier successes against him. A Saudi militant, Abdullah Asiri, posing as a repentant member of AQAP, persuaded the prince that he wanted to surrender. During their subsequent meeting at a Ramadan banquet, Asiri convinced bin Nayyif that there were others like him in Yemen who just needed a word of assurance from the prince before they too would surrender. As soon as he got on the phone, the bomb Asiri had hidden in his rectum exploded, lightly wounding bin Nayyif (there is some dispute about the bomb’s exact placement).
Elements of that attack were later incorporated into the attempt to bring down a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Both bombs used PETN, a highly explosive chemical agent, and were likely built by Ibrahim Asiri, Abdullah’s brother, and the man suspected of constructing the parcel bombs discovered last week.
The United States, faced with a difficult situation in Yemen and still playing catch-up from years of neglect, has been unable to find an adequate response to the AQAP threat. Early estimates of 300 members are, to judge by the summer of attacks in Yemen, far too conservative. President Barack Obama is overburdened with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is likely well aware of the disastrous consequences of invasion. He does not want to send U.S. troops into Yemen. He has opted instead for surgical strikes aimed at decapitating AQAP’s leadership. Unfortunately, the series of airstrikes the United States orchestrated in late 2009 and early 2010 have only made the problem worse, boosting al-Qaeda’s local recruiting appeal.
In one early strike, dozens of civilians were killed in a village in the south of Yemen. In another airstrike, a Yemeni government official was killed instead of the al-Qaeda member, who was supposedly the target. Both incidents have been used by AQAP’s media wing as examples that Yemen is under Western military attack. Under this argument, Yemenis are compelled to fight the United States and its local allies in defense of Muslim lands.
Neither approach — full invasion or surgical strikes — will solve the problem of al-Qaeda terrorism in Yemen and make America safer. The United States and its allies have been lucky three times in just over a year. Counting on that luck holding is not a safe bet.