Evidence has been mounting that al-Qaeda is building a strong presence in Yemen. This reality is even clearer given an upsurge in activity in recent days including two separate attacks by Yemeni forces against al-Qaeda bases and the claim by the suspect in the attempted Amsterdam-Detroit airline bombing that he received the necessary explosives in Yemen.
Yemen is at a great risk to infiltration by al-Qaeda. It is an extremely poor state where a vast majority of individuals still live in rural areas and existing evidence suggests that the local population is more likely to be sympathetic to terrorist activities given the deep resentment towards both the Yemeni regime and United States foreign policy. Most importantly, the state does not control all (or arguably even most) of Yemeni territory, allowing al-Qaeda to operate with potential impunity.
Additionally, the Yemeni regime continues to follow an unclear policy towards al-Qaeda. Officially, Yemen is an ally of the US and cooperates with the US in the fight against al-Qaeda. However, the locations of numerous well-known al-Qaeda suspects are known to the regime which refuses to take action against them. Moreover, when action does take place, it tends to have a striking correlation with other events in Yemen, such as escalations in the war in Sa’ada, anti-democratic moves by the regime, or terrorist attacks that are linked to Yemen. Thus, it appears that Yemen’s commitment to tacking al-Qaeda is often intended to limit foreign intervention in Yemeni affairs.
This presents a unique challenge for US policymakers. Given the weakness of the regime, it is unclear if greater pressure could yield tangible results. The regime remains in power due to a careful balancing act and fears taking on individuals with ties to powerful tribes or clans. Additionally, it is challenging for the regime to take action in areas where it has limited if any de facto control. Limiting the growth of al-Qaeda in this region will be a long battle that necessitates the strengthening of the Yemeni state.
While evidence suggests that the US is bolstering military aid to Yemen, additional steps are necessary. First, the US and other countries must also concentrate on dealing with the broader spectrum of problems facing Yemen, including ending the war in Sa’ada and addressing the concerns of southerners to limit a growing secessionist movement. If these ongoing crises could be resolved, it would free up resources that could be used to address ongoing issues of concern to ordinary citizens including economic development, the water issue, and the corruption problem. In the long-term, the success at addressing these issues will prove critical to stopping al-Qaeda’s growth in Yemen.