The Fight Against Terrorism Could Shift to Yemen

A weak central government and high unemployment make Yemen attractive to al Qaeda and its recruits.

By + More

In the wake of the airplane bombing attempt over Detroit on Christmas, President Obama vowed to take an aggressive stance against those who were behind the plot. "The United States will do more than simply strengthen our defenses," he said. "We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us."

In the case of the would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, those extremists would seem to be in Yemen, a dirt-poor country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian peninsula. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, has claimed that he was trained and supported by al Qaeda in Yemen. While the full extent of his activities in Yemen is not known, Yemen's government did acknowledge this week that he was in the country from August until shortly before his attempted attack. Over the past year, Yemen has emerged from nearly total obscurity to become the newest hot spot to vex U.S. policymakers. Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, says the country is becoming "a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda."

The question is, what can—or should—the United States do about Yemen? Its position is roughly analogous to that of Pakistan: Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a U.S. ally, but there are large parts of the country (which is the size of California and Pennsylvania combined) over which the government exerts little authority and where al Qaeda operatives hide out and plan attacks. The Yemeni government did execute airstrikes on al Qaeda targets this month, killing an estimated 60 militants.

American assistance now focuses on low-profile military aid like the training of Yemeni commandos by U.S. Special Forces and the sharing of intelligence and targeting data. Military aid has been significantly increased, to $67 million in the current fiscal year, to pay for things like helicopters with night-vision equipment and 360 armored pickup trucks for border patrols. In addition, says Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "I'm sure there are lots of clandestine programs going on." Yemen will likely become a higher priority for the United States in the wake of the failed airplane attack. "This is only going to spur the administration to focus even more on Yemen," Boucek says.

What form that increased attention will take is not clear. Sen. Joe Lieberman has raised eyebrows by warning that "if we don't act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war." But Boucek says overt military involvement by the States would backfire. "Having Americans involved in 'kinetic' operations in Yemen would not be good—it would feed into the griev­ances of al Qaeda, and it would be incredibly unpopular and would weaken the Yem­eni government's ability to do more."

More useful, experts say, would be U.S. aid that addressed Yemen's many problems, including a 35 percent un­employ­ment rate, a population that will double in 20 years, and a rapidly dwindling water supply. "People care about Yemen because of al Qaeda, but al Qaeda is not what is going to doom Yemen or lead to its failure as a state," Boucek says.