The struggle against al-Qaeda in Yemen stands as an unheralded though critical front in the global war against terrorism. This fight has taken the form of violent hit-and-run operations against the Yemen Army, itself backed by U.S. drones, and the establishment of territorial bases that are often in flux. Most recently the battle has shifted to Hadramaut province, which was already largely controlled by al-Qaeda, after the Yemen Army managed to regain control of Abyan province and expel Ansar al-Sharia. Despite these ostensible gains, al-Qaeda forces have proven adept at moving in to fill gaps in central authority and capitalizing on endemic instability, poverty, unemployment, and political division in Yemen- the very factors that provide the most fertile ground for spreading the group’s extremist beliefs.
Since its establishment in January 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has launched numerous attacks against American interests in the region. In response, Washington has slowly expanded its drone attacks in Yemen and strengthened the government’s ability to fight this ‘organization’ on its own via increased training and military assistance. With the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, a political crisis emerged in Yemen between former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled for more than 30 years, and his opponents who criticized the government’s systemic corruption and failure to provide basic services. Al-Qaeda took advantage of the growing security vacuum and launched a series of raids across the South in that year. As the Arab Spring intensified in Yemen, causing the overthrow of the Saleh regime, al-Qaeda significantly expanded it operations, particularly against the Yemeni armed forces. In March of 2012, an Islamic Emirate was declared in Shabwa province, and the city of Zanzibar has been held by the organization since 2012.
The surge of al-Qaeda’s activities in Yemen after the Arab Spring is a cause of great concern for both the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States. Yemen’s control over one of the most important naval straits in the world, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which is located between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, underscores this geostrategic importance. Commercial liners and oil tankers pass through the strait on their way to and from the Suez Canal. International stakeholders are concerned that al-Qaeda will take advantage of the current transitional conditions in Yemen to threaten shipping and international trade, contributing to the maritime piracy that is already blighting the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
There are several factors that will complicate new Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s attempts to stabilize the South and reestablish central government authority. They include:
Al-Qaeda has concentrated its activities in areas that are mountainous and lacking in infrastructure, where literacy rates are low and poverty is rife. In this, Yemen poses challenges similar to those of Afghanistan.
The Islamists are taking advantage of post-revolution political turmoil. Currently, the armed forces are preoccupied with internal stability and domestic political power struggles; the Yemen Army is seeking to maximize its influence and presence in several cities, especially in the southern provinces. In fact, there are political parties and power blocs that are invested in al-Qaeda’s activities because they lost out in the process of political transition in Yemen. Many opposition groups and tribes have thus facilitated al-Qaeda’s activities as a way to weaken the incipient central government. For example, some tribes have allowed terrorists to establish safe havens for training and recruitment.
In addition to the fact that Yemen has the second highest rate of gun ownership in the world, al-Qaeda-allied groups have been able to seize large quantities of weapons, equipment, and ammunition from Yemeni army sites captured in the south and southeast of Yemen.
These factors have enhanced al-Qaeda’s ability to become President Hadi’s biggest challenge in moving the country from dictatorship to democracy. After the Arab Spring, the new leadership inherited a fragmented security and military apparatus that must contend with an organized terrorist structure with a strong grip on many of the important cities and regions in the southern part of the country. Given the circumstances, the new government is faced with a very difficult task. On the one hand, it must fulfill the political responsibilities entrusted to it in the transitional phase, particularly the responsibility to push for a national dialogue and political settlement. On the other hand, Hadi’s government has to eliminate all sources (economic, political, and security) that al-Qaeda is drawing on to strengthen its grip on the southern areas. It also needs to understand that the continued escalation of al-Qaeda activity will doubtlessly overshadow the overall situation in Yemen, making any political settlement vulnerable to further shocks. The war against Islamist militants is draining the state’s resources, all at the expense of other political and economic development goals. In addition, security agencies have often botched operations in dealing with militants, thus prolonging the duration of the fight and encouraging al-Qaeda to carry out more daring attacks against top Yemeni leaders.
The inability of the new government to resolve the battle with al-Qaeda will affect the democratic transition negatively. It’s only a matter of time until Yemeni citizens lose confidence in the transitional government which has promised to fight terrorism and ease their economic hardship. This may push some people to engage in other local or regional political projects, or even fall into the arms of terrorist groups. Moreover, the continuation of these groups’ activities in Yemen will encourage dissatisfied young people on the regional and international level to come to Yemen and support the terrorist cause.
In the end, the geostrategic blessing of Yemen’s location – its proximity to oil wells of the Gulf and supervision of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb – is turning into a geostrategic curse. At present, these characteristics merely expose the country to more external pressure and interference, turning it into an open battleground against terrorism.