How the War on Terror Failed Yemen

The West decided to make fighting al Qaeda its top priority — and only ended up making things worse.

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Military training has become a centerpiece of Western counterterrorism and state-building efforts around the world. From Tunisia and Mali to Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. and U.K. personnel are hard at work to professionalize national armed forces and develop specialist counterterrorism units. The thinking is straightforward: an effective military can bolster a troubled state, allow its institutions to function, and secure its countryside to facilitate economic regeneration.

The track record of these programs has been patchy at best, but few have been as disastrous as in Yemen. Eight years of Western training not only failed to build a military that could defend the state, but led to a myopic focus on counterterrorism that accelerated its implosion. The mistakes made in Yemen — where military trainers were deployed without consideration for local political dynamics — provide a clear demonstration of the unintended consequences of a military-centric approach to the war on terror. Throughout the period of U.S. and U.K. military assistance to Yemen, al Qaeda expanded both its territory and membership year on year.

The initial battle against al Qaeda in Yemen was remarkably successful. Between 2001 and 2005, U.K. and U.S. special forces, in conjunction with the Yemeni government, rapidly shut down jihadist training camps and imprisoned al Qaeda leaders. Deeming the mission accomplished, policymakers in Washington and London severely curtailed military assistance to Yemen, and turned their attention to democratization. This infuriated President Saleh, who lost access to considerable funds and opportunities for patronage. Then, in 2006, 23 senior al Qaeda militants escaped from a Yemeni jail. Al Qaeda had returned — and with it came renewed Western military aid.

The response set the worst possible precedent. It effectively tied millions of dollars in aid — and the corresponding support for President Saleh — not to al Qaeda’s elimination, but to its continued presence. From that moment, Yemeni efforts to confront the insurgency lost their previous vigor.

“I went in thinking that we had a reasonable partnership with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh,” explained Stephen Seche, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 2007-2010. “He was an extraordinary manipulator. He was continuously sounding the alarm, [warning] that al Qaeda was encroaching further in territory that was thought to be secured. That captured the imagination of CIA and Department of Defense officials who would go back to Washington with a firm determination to provide more assistance, more training.”

Britain deployed a training team to the capital of Sanaa to work alongside Yemen’s paramilitary Central Security Forces (CSF), and another team to Aden to mentor the coast guard. U.S. trainers were responsible for the Yemeni army and special forces.

The training program was comprehensive, covering weapons skills, logistics, intelligence procedures, and urban and desert warfare maneuvers. “We brought it back to first principles,” one of the British trainers told us. “We started teaching them our targeting cycle: find, fix, finish, exploit and analyze.”

Under British guidance, the CSF set up a Counterterrorism Unit (CTU) and an Intelligence Fusion Center, recruiting the first female section in the Yemeni military to track down al Qaeda fixers and facilitators.

But as the unit expanded, the number of missions undertaken was cut back to around two per month, baffling Western officials. “There was a real reluctance to use them. I never got to the bottom of why,” one officer recalled.

The reason was twofold. In the first place, eradicating al Qaeda would have removed the justification for these units’ existence. The second reason was that the government lacked the political capital to conduct extensive operations across the rural hinterland without coming into conflict with Yemen’s tribal groups, which locally hold much of the political power.

“They very sporadically deployed to some of these sensitive regions and then came back without any permanent presence established,” said Seche.

“The coalition between extremist groups and tribal units made it difficult to fight the terrorists,” said Colonel Yahya Saleh, nephew of then-President Saleh, who commanded the CSF until 2012. “Some tribes sympathized with the terrorists.”

Tribal sympathies not only caused the tribes to oppose the Yemeni military but also caused problems within the CSF. “As soon as they knew they were going [on an operation], the members of the Counterterrorism Unit who had family connections with the target were already on the phone to tell them that they were being scrambled,” one British soldier recalled. “So when the CSF actually got there, the target had done a runner!”

Frustrated by the reluctance of Yemeni units to confront al Qaeda, U.S. and British forces began to conduct their own operations. Initially these were highly secretive. “As soon as they’d done the hit,” explained a British soldier involved in the operations, “they’d scramble the [Yemeni] Counterterrorism Unit, who’d turn up and claim the kill.”

Eventually they moved to more overt intervention. Colonel Saleh said that the limitations of the CSF “meant the Yemeni government had to work with the American drone program.” But this further alienated tribal groups from the central government, and strengthened al Qaeda’s claim to be fighting on the behalf of local people.

“There were mistakes that killed civilians and there was no excuse for them. Al Qaeda would exploit these to recruit angry people,” said Colonel Saleh. “It got out of control, which provoked religious groups to oppose the state and helped to spread extremism.”

It was hoped that humanitarian aid would win over key constituencies. The U.K.’s Department for International Development funded irrigation, Germany worked on archaeological sites to boost tourism, and USAID had a wide-ranging portfolio of projects. But as al Qaeda began to take hostages, many of these programs were stopped, and the rest were relegated to a lower priority than counterterrorism, as it was felt that little could be done so long as it was unsafe for aid workers to leave the capital. “We just found that there was a non-permissive environment, making it difficult for us to move into areas where the development needs were the greatest,” said Seche.

A senior Yemeni diplomat, who wanted to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations, noted how tribes would occasionally stir up trouble to get attention from the government to build roads, schools or irrigation. What they increasingly received instead were air strikes.

The myopic focus on counterterrorism blinded Western officials to Yemen’s real crisis, which was first and foremost political. Al Qaeda had a foothold because it was sheltered by tribal groups hostile to the government, not because it was in itself powerful enough to oppose government forces.

For years, President Saleh had been amassing political power for himself, his family, and his allies. Western military training programs only extended this power, allowing him to attack his enemies more forcefully — and thus engendering fiercer opposition. Saleh loyalists were trained at Sandhurst and other Western military academies and given command of units including the CSF and the National Security Bureau, Yemen’s main intelligence agency. Saleh’s family members held these positions before 2006, but by making Western training a benchmark for promotion to senior ranks, and selecting Saleh’s allies to participate, the training programs entrenched their position. As a result, key posts went to people who had the least interest in addressing Yemen’s imbalance of power and resources.

When the Arab Spring swept through Yemen in 2011, threatening Saleh’s 34-year rule, the political loyalties of the Western-trained officers became all too apparent — the British-trained and equipped Public Order Battalion, a subunit of the CSF, set about assaulting demonstrators with gusto. Although British trainers had emphasized rules of engagement and human rights law, and tried to train the CSF to control rather than to confront crowds, this advice was politely received and rejected.

Eventually, some military units began to take up the cause of the demonstrators. Alarmed at the deteriorating security situation, the British and the Americans encouraged Saleh to agree to a deal negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council in which he would leave office, so long as he could stay in Yemen. In February 2012 the former vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, took power at the head of a transitional government.

That government was riven by infighting within Yemen’s military and political elite, even as it presided over an economic catastrophe. Senior officers were chased from their posts, opportunities to dismiss Saleh loyalists were taken, and clashes broke out between different units of the Yemeni military. But at a time when the government was most in need of good relations and support from tribal groups, 2012 saw a massive escalation in the Western campaign of direct strikes against al Qaeda, which led to a rapidly growing list of civilian casualties.

Western efforts in Yemen remained tightly focused on counterterrorism. Few resources were reallocated from the counterterrorism program to supporting the political transition. Stephen Seche, by then back in Washington, noted how “there were fires running all over the region from Tunisia to Libya, to Egypt, to Syria and if there was any prospect of a process in Yemen not requiring the fire brigades to go rushing in, we would say fine, let the Yemenis sort this out.”

What emerged — the U.N.-led National Dialogue Conference — achieved little in terms of distributing power or mending the rift between the government and tribal groups. Shortly afterwards, the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia political movement, went into revolt, supported by tribes allied to former President Saleh. In September 2014, they drove the government from the capital, precipitating the collapse of the Yemeni state.

Throughout this period, CSF personnel — who were highly skilled and well equipped, having been drilled for eight years by U.K. and U.S. trainers — remained in their barracks, entirely impotent. They were unable to act, not because they could not fight, or lacked weapons, but because it was politically impossible to deploy them, as their command was divided between Yemen’s vying political factions.

Washington and London had sought to increase training and assistance to the bitter end, but without political reform, it had been rendered entirely useless. Today, al Qaeda is in direct control of a large swathe of southern Yemen and is no longer entirely dependent on its tribal allies.

The futility of the Western training program is reflected in the bitter recollection of some British personnel who took part. One lamented the fact that “most of the guys we were mentoring are dead now. There are two who I know are working for Yemeni headquarters in Saudi, but the rest of them are dead.”

“What happened in Yemen,” explained another British official, “was just a lot of money spent, a lot of time wasted, and nothing whatsoever was achieved.”

In the photo, members of Yemen’s counterterrorism unit train in a suburb of Sanaa on July 7, 2007.

Photo credit: KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images

Jack Watling is an academic studying civil conflict policy. He has reported forForeign Policy, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Haaretz, Jane’s Intelligence Review and others. Twitter: @Jack_Watling
Namir Shabibi is an investigative journalist who has written for VICE News. He previously worked as an investigator for Reprieve, a human rights NGO, and was a delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).