A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

More Reasons for Caution in Yemen

I have already linked to Marc Lynch's excellent cautionary post, Don't Lose Perspective in Yemen, and endorse what he says, insofar as anyone has asked my opinion. As he notes, despite some heated rhetoric (Joe Lieberman warning Yemen may be "the next war"), most people realize that with two wars on its hands already the US is hardly able to consider a Yemeni front, even if that would not simply play further into the Al-Qa‘ida narrative that the US is a Crusader power fighting a war against Islam. But I thought there might be some utility in making a few points about the problems associated with various possible scenarios in Yemen. First, as Lynch notes, while our main concern is with Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen is devoting its military resources primarily against the Houthi uprising, which is an entirely different issue, despite some sloppy reporting that has muddied the issue from time to time. The third major challenge to the regime is secessionist sentiment in the south, the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. These fracture lines can be confusing enough but become more so when you include the role of the big neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Which is why the idea of letting the Saudis handle the problem is equally troublesome. Consider some of the ways the various players interact:
  • One division in Yemen is between the Zaydi population in the northern mountains and the Sunni population of the south and the coastline. But to portray the Houthi rebellion as a Zaydi-Sunni split (or a Shi‘ite-Sunni split) is misleading, since President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is himself a Zaydi, and so is a lot of the Army leadership and other elites. In the Houthi case, Saudi Arabia, with a lot of historical friction with Yemen, is actually the military ally of the Yemeni government, mostly to secure their own border.
  • The northern/southern split, between the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, North Yemen) and the former PDRY (South Yemen), two countries with distinct pre-independence histories, remains a complex one. Aden, the major historic seaport, has never fully been integrated with the tribal mountains of the north. The Saudi role is particularly confusing here: the Saudis were, unsurprisingly, happy to see the disappearance of the Marxist PDRY, but not happy to see a unified Yemen on their border; during the 1994 Yemeni civil war, hen the south tried to secede, the Saudis almost openly supported the rebels.
  • As for AQAP, there are Sunni radical Islamists in several parts of the country, and Usama bin Ladin's father came from South Yemen. The fact that the central government has generally had trouble exercising its writ in remote areas means that training camps have sprouted up, often in areas outside government control. Like Afghanistan, Yemen is a mountainous country with many internal divisions.
  • As Lynch notes, the Salih government has been less and less tolerant of dissent in recent years, and Salih, who took over then-North Yemen in 1978 and is thus senior to every Arab fruler except Qadhafi and Sultan Qaboos &mdash he even has three years on Mubarak — is toying with having his son succeed him. As Lynch notes, if you liked Hamid Karzai . . . The economy is in shambles, adding to the separatist sentiments.
  • The "let the Saudis handle it" approach means encouraging the intervention of Yemen's traditional enemy. It was only in the 1930s that Saudi Arabia annexed Jizan and Najran from Yemen, and neither Saudis nor Yemenis have forgotten it. This would do more to unite Yemenis against the Saudis, but that is not the goal we'd be trying to accomplish.
I suspect it's also important to note that a similar PETN explosive from Yemen like that used in the Christmas attempt was used in the attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayef last summer, with the bomber blowing himself up but only injuring the prince's finger. So far these bombs have taken a heavier toll of the bombers than of any potential victims, and AQAP has yet to prove itself a very successful terrorist group outside the peninsula. The same Muhammad bin Nayef has been responsible for a major Saudi crackdown on AQAP in the Kingdom, hence their attempt on him.


LJ Marczak said...

On a related note, have you seen any worthwhile articles analyzing the Saudi anti-terrorist campaign?

From what I've pieced together on my own from reading the Saudi press, it seems to be quite a sophisticated multi-faceted campaign:
(1) police work and military action
(2) a well orchestrated amnesty/rehabilitation program to revert terrorists - and reduce the numbers of existing terrorists. Defections are a particular threat point for clandestine organizations - leading to enhanced internal security and often expulsion of true believers. The Saudi authorities appear to actively use the terrorists' families to make appeals for their sons to return home.
(3) youth camps and activities to prevent new terrorists from being recruited
(4) a pretty vigorous and sophisticated press campaign which hits a number of themes. The barbarity of the attacks and the fate of the terrorists. Rather gruesome pictures of dead terrorists. Of the carnage from the failed assassination attempt on Amir Muhammad Bin Nayef. With the Jizan checkpoint shootings, that the terrorists were dressed as women and opened fire without any warning. Interviews with the terrorists' families denouncing their offspring. And then there was the outreach by Amir Muhammad to speak with the mother and father of his would be assassin.
(5) A well orchestrated campaign of senior religious figures denouncing the terrorists as unIslamic.

Anonymous said...

Why is Lynch considered competent on Yemen? Has he ever been there? Why don't you cite real Yemen experts?

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Because I agree with him. I've never been to Yemen myself, but I've known a lot of Yemenis from all backgrounds, and my work means I've known many of the best American, British, and other English language scholars on the country for several decades now.

That's why.

You're free to post as "Anonymous" but since I can't tell one "Anonumous" from another, I'd recommend choosing a pseudonym -- real names aren't necessary -- so I can tell the anonymous commmenters apart.