What Yemen Wants

Most Yemenis are unaware of the recent air-cargo bomb plot, and are loath to embrace an American military campaign on their own soil.

SANA'A, YEMEN—Though the foiled plot to mail packages filled with bombs to synagogues in Chicago has bumped congressional midterm elections as the top story in the United States, here in Yemen it has caused barely a ripple. While Washington focuses on combating the regional al-Qaeda affiliate believed to be behind the plot, Yemenis are much more concerned with a sectarian rebellion in the north, a secession movement in the south and the economic crisis that has crippled the country.

Most Yemenis are unaware that the packages that caused heightened concerns in the United States originated in their country, because the Saleh government has muted coverage of the story in the local press.

Washington’s policies of drone strikes coupled with high-profile military and diplomatic visits risk further alienating an already hostile Yemeni population and driving them into the arms of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the local al-Qaeda affiliate the Obama administration is so focused on neutralizing.

“Americans come here and attack without knowing what is going on,” as one Yemeni put it. “We don’t want to be Iraq. This is an American war, not Yemen’s, and we don’t want to be a part of it.”

Such views have soured Yemenis on an American campaign they were already loath to embrace in the first place.

Yet Yemen has emerged as a central front in the war on terror. Al-Qaeda exploited the country’s lax security to launch a 2001 attack against the USS Cole off its southern coast, and it has historically drafted Yemenis into key positions. Today AQAP has taken up the cause, attacking the U.S. embassy in the capital city of Sana’a in 2008, and dispatching Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane in American skies last Christmas.

Al-Qaeda’s long history in Yemen has led Washington to send a steady stream of public officials here in hopes of securing better counterterrorism efforts. The admonitory messages they bear—and the military assistance, intelligence cooperation and financial incentives they provide—have spurred the Saleh government to take steps to subdue AQAP.

But for Yemenis, AQAP is only one dilemma among many. More pressing is the six-year Houthi rebellion raging in the country’s northern provinces. The Houthis are part of a Shia sect known as the Zaydis, and they are fighting to gain government benefits for their beleaguered coreligionists. The government has neglected Zaydi areas and sought to marginalize them by supporting their religious adversaries, the Salafis.

Yemenis mistakenly fear that the Houthis will put an end to republican rule and return the country to the prerevolutionary government, a Zaydi Imamate which was often led by a religio-political figure.

Many Yemenis are willing to die to defend the country against this threat. Recent Houthi advances into Bani Hushaish, a village fifteen miles north of the capital, as well as the rebels’ strong showing against the Saudi army during border clashes last year, have heightened misperceptions that the rebels are only a few offensives away from capturing the state.

Another worry that trumps AQAP in Yemeni consciousness is the Southern Movement. Since the reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990, southerners have aired a range of social and economic grievances. Not without reason, they complain that the Saleh government denies them senior bureaucratic and security positions, and withholds the fair share of oil revenues earned from wells in their provinces.

Above all, economic concerns have captured Yemenis’ attention. The country is rapidly running out of petroleum, and has few options for a post-oil economy. In the streets, Yemenis complain of high inflation, rising prices and the inability to buy basic staples.

“The economy is the biggest problem in Yemen,” one Yemeni said recently. "This is at the heart of our conflicts. The smallest pressure is enough to make Yemen explode because people won’t be able to deal with it.”

In the minds of most Yemenis, these threats far outweigh that of AQAP, which has been careful not to kill many civilians.

American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki personifies U.S. fears that Yemen is a hotbed of terrorism. The U.S. government portrays al-Awlaki as a radical preacher with links to major al-Qaeda plots, highlighting his ties to the Fort Hood shooter and the Christmas Day bomber.

But in Yemen’s mountainous tribal areas, people consider him an ordinary man, whose anti-American views are characteristic of the larger population. In fact, most Yemenis have never even heard his name.