Terrorist Acts in the U.S. Draw Attention to Yemeni President Saleh's Failing Governance

The CIA investigation of the U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s November 5 murder of 13 soldiers at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, and the December 25 failed attempt by a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to detonate a bomb inside a 300-passenger plane in Detroit has revealed links between these terrorists and a spawning Al-Qaeda network in Yemen. Major Hasan reportedly exchanged e-mails and sought spiritual guidance from a radical U.S.-born Islamic cleric, Anwar Al-Awlaki, who grew up in Yemen. Mr. Abdulmutallab said he received training and explosive devices from the Al-Qaeda operatives during his four-month stay in Yemen last year.

Yemen’s involvement in these terrorist acts has also shed a spotlight on its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom Washington has urged to launch a vast antiterrorist operation now underway in this volatile Arab nation.  

Mr. Saleh is a seasoned war horse. He served as North Yemen’s president for 12 years, before merging the country’s northern and southern parts in 1990, following decades of the colonial and ideological divisions. He has been a president of this united, Sunni-dominated nation ever since, although the real extent of his authority is questionable. Mr. Saleh’s repeated attempts to quash the Shiite insurgents led by Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi in the north-west and secessionists in the south have been unsuccessful, effectively limiting his cabinet’s control to the areas surrounding the capital, Sana’a. 

Mr. Saleh’s clashes with separatists in the south continued through the 1990s, with the most recent rebellion in 2008. In the north-west, the Al-Houthi insurgents crossed into the Saudi Arabia last month, murdering two Saudi patrol guards and triggering a joint Saudi-Yemeni airstrikes against guerillas.                 

Yemen surfaced as a breeding ground for international terrorists in the early 1990s, when the impoverished refugees escaping violence in neighboring Somalia were recruited by Al-Qaeda in Yemen. In October 2000, Al-Qaeda terrorists blasted a hole in the American Navy destroyer USS Cole harbored in the Yemeni post of Aden, killing 17 U.S. sailors. In September 2008, Al-Qaeda took credit for a bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a that killed 10 non-American citizens.

The Bush Administration’s entanglement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prevented it from clamping down on the sprawling terrorist network in Yemen. President Obama now hopes to eradicate the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, recently founded by Yemeni and Saudi radicals, before it becomes safely rooted in the country’s rugged, desert-ridden terrain. 

The emerging new evidence of Al-Qaeda’s expanding presence in Yemen has punctuated the country’s numerous socio-economic and political ills, including the government’s excessive reliance on rapidly dwindling oil resources, severe water shortage, pervasive corruption, inter-regional tensions, low literacy rates, as well as poverty, unemployment and population growth rates that are, reportedly, the highest in the Middle East. While Yemen’s protracted sectarian and territorial disputes have made the task of state-building increasingly difficult for Mr. Saleh, most of the problems the country faces today are the product of his own heavy-handed and short-sighted policies. 

Mr. Saleh neglected to address southern Yemenis’ concerns about their lagging economic development and political marginalization. These grievances stoked secessionist sentiments in the south, which Mr. Saleh opted to address by crushing the uprisings and expelling his opponents from the country, instead of taking steps to improve the southerners’ livelihoods and implementing fairer federal civil service recruitment policies. Al-Qaeda has used the southern discontent with Mr. Saleh’s policies to gain reception and plant networks in this area that cannot be easily penetrated by Mr. Saleh’s security forces.                   

After 9/11, Mr. Saleh joined Washington’s fight against global jihad but failed miserably in ridding Yemen of jihadists due to the weak army, poor law enforcement and little, if any, control that he has over the remote areas populated by belligerent tribes.     

In addition to arming and training the Yemeni soldiers to decimate Al-Qaeda’s cell in the country, the Obama Administration has pledged to increase development assistance to Mr. Saleh’s government to help provide a systemic solution to Yemen’s problems that render its population susceptible to radical Islam. U.S. economic aid may also make the indirect American military involvement against Al-Qaeda slightly more palatable to ordinary Yemenis, who tend to sympathize with Al-Qaeda’s anti-American rhetoric.

The aid package, it is said, will be directed toward implementing a 20-month ten-step reform plan, devised by Jalal Yaqoub, Yemen’s deputy finance minister. Mr. Yaqoub believes that his proposals will help boost Yemen’s economy and blunt the separatist movement by creating new jobs in the port city of Aden, South Yemen’s former capital and a major trade hub. He also hopes to improve Mr. Saleh’s domestic image through a merit-based recruitment of 100 new officials for key posts in Mr. Saleh’s government. 

President Obama has praised the proposed reforms that are, indeed, Yemen’s bravest attempt to-date at self-modernization. However, local analysts are skeptical about Mr. Saleh’s ability to uproot Al-Qaeda from its strongholds around Aden and facilitate economic growth there in less than two years. They also believe he’ll face opposition from both loyalists and foes, who expect to be rewarded or appeased with high-profile public jobs. It is true that Mr. Yaqoub’s ambitious goals can hardly be accomplished so fast, but Mr. Saleh, who turns 68 next year and has been grooming his son to succeed him, is clearly motivated to leave a more stable Yemen as his legacy.        

In the end, both Mr. Saleh and President Obama should understand that the success of the U.S.-supported military campaign against Al-Qaeda will be checkered at best, unless efforts are also made to improve security situation in the adjacent East African nations, whose porous borders and chaotic regimes offer easy escape routes and safe havens for Al-Qaeda members. With Washington’s attention and resources now strongly committed to Yemen, Mr. Saleh may still be able to better the present and the future for the 20 million of his compatriots.

This article is simultaneously published with our partner site, World Policy Journal  

Marianna Gurtovnik's interests lie in foreign policy, international security, and energy security. She has written on these topics for World Politics Review, Transitions Online, and the Congressionally-funded Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). For PNSR, she completed research studies on the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. Government's response to the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and the Suez Canal Crisis (1956). She holds a Master's Degree in Public Administration from American University in Washington, DC.