Ten years ago, a U.S. Navy destroyer was bombed while refueling in the Yemeni port of Aden. The suicide attack killed seventeen American sailors and injured thirty-nine. Since the strike, the danger originating out of Yemen has only grown. While Osama bin Laden and other top U.S. targets continue to hide in Pakistan, al-Qaeda in Yemen is now even more dangerous than the central group. On the brink of collapse, Yemen is a nearly perfect haven for terrorists and the West must respond—but exclusively focusing on counterterrorism will only increase the risk for the United States.
American analysts now consider al-Qaeda's affiliate organization in Yemen a more pressing threat to U.S. national security than the central leadership as the Yemen-based outfit is increasingly agile and looking for opportunities to strike abroad. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was officially announced in January 2009 following the merger of the affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The group aims to use Yemen as a base for training and to plot, plan, and launch operations at home and abroad. While al-Qaeda in Yemen modeled itself on the original outfit, it's autonomous and doesn't take direction from bin Laden.
Strategically located between Saudi Arabia and Somalia—connecting the separate but interconnected regions of the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa—Yemen has a long history of extremism and terrorism. Coming from a religious and conservative country, a large number of Yemenis fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and before September 11 Yemenis reportedly made up the second-largest group in al-Qaeda training camps. Al-Qaeda's first strike on American targets took place in Yemen almost 20 years ago and ever since the attempted terrorist attack on the flight bound for Detroit in December last year, Yemen is on everyone's map.
Despite Western security assistance and the clandestine use of U.S. air strikes, al-Qaeda is surging in Yemen. There has been a noticeable uptick in attacks within the country in recent years. Its primary targets are foreigners, energy infrastructure and the Yemeni security services mounting their own operations against the group.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula faces much less pressure than al-Qaeda's senior leadership in South Asia. While the large U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan has put the central leadership on the defensive, there is no public U.S. military presence in Yemen. With more freedom to operate, the group poses an imminent threat to the West.
Within the country, the group has killed tourists from Spain, Belgium and South Korea, twice attacked the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, and attempted to assassinate the British ambassador. And the pace of the attacks is intensifying. By some estimates, there have already been more than thirty attacks this year and around forty Yemeni security officials have been killed in the violence. It's an increasingly coordinated campaign.
This trajectory demonstrates its ability to mount deadly operations in the country, region and the West. In August 2008, al-Qaeda attempted to assassinate the Saudi counterterrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in the Kingdom. And the failed attack on Christmas day underlined the group's global ambitions. This was the first al-Qaeda attempt on a domestic American target that wasn't planned in South Asia, but in Yemen.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula repeatedly emphasizes its desire to strike Western interests and it has shown the capacity to follow through on previous threats. Recent history demonstrates that when the group says it will strike it does and if things don't work out in its favor, al-Qaeda tries again. Even during the height of the al-Qaeda violence in Saudi Arabia, the organization did not strike outside the Kingdom. This outfit, however, continues to have ambitions beyond Yemen.
But, al-Qaeda is not Sanaa's only concern—the country is in crisis. Yemen also faces a looming economic meltdown, poor governance, corruption, limited state capacity, civil war in the north and secessionist movement in the south. And the under governed spaces this list of challenges creates allows the resurgent al-Qaeda organization to thrive.
While al-Qaeda is obviously Washington's number one concern in Yemen, these root causes of instability cannot be ignored. The problems within Yemen need to be fixed to prevent their spread beyond the borders. An exclusive focus on directly fighting terrorism will only inflame grievances and increase militancy—a one-sided approach will be counterproductive in the end. Short-term counterterrorism and security operations need to be paired with long-term development assistance and support that expands the capacity of the Yemeni government.
The current emphasis on hard security is backwards. With this in mind, the United States needs to help the Yemeni government fight corruption, improve social services, address the legitimate grievances of resistance groups and increase economic growth. Development assistance is one of the most effective tools available to do all of this, but it is disproportionately small. Over the next three years, the United States plans to send $121 million to Yemen, but will give $1.5 billion to Pakistan next year alone. The resources don't match the relative dangers.
Ten years on from the USS Cole bombing, the United States still doesn't have an answer. As the national security threat emanating from Yemen continues to rise, the United States must work to minimize al-Qaeda's reach. Counterterrorism and military support alone will not win the struggle—Washington needs to help Yemen confront its converging challenges. Only then will the nearly perfect environment for terrorist activity be reduced.