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The Conflicts in Yemen and U.S. National Security

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | January 2011

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Yemen is not currently a failed state, but it is experiencing huge political and economic problems that can have a direct impact on U.S. interests in the region. It has a rapidly expanding population with a resource base that is limited and already leaves much of the current population in poverty. The government obtains around a third of its budget revenue from sales of its limited and declining oil stocks, which most economists state will be exhausted by 2017. Yemen has critical water shortages aggravated by the use of extensive amounts of water and agricultural land for production of the shrub qat, which is chewed for stimulant and other effects but has no nutritional value. All of these problems are especially difficult to address because the central government has only limited capacity to extend its influence into tribal areas beyond the capital and major cities. Adding to these difficulties, Yemen is also facing a variety of interrelated national security problems that have strained the limited resources of the government, military, and security forces. In Sa’ada province in Yemen’s northern mountainous region, there has been an intermittent rebellion by Houthi tribesmen who accuse the government of discrimination and other actions against their Zaydi Shi’ite religious sect. In southern Yemen, a powerful independence movement has developed which is mostly nonviolent but is also deeply angry and increasingly confrontational.

A key country that must be considered in formulating Yemen policy is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is Yemen’s chief aid donor and often considers itself to have a special relationship with Yemen that affords it an elevated and privileged role in providing external guidance to Sana’a. Some observers suggest that Saudi Arabia views this role as so important that challenging Saudi interests in Yemen is sometimes viewed as equally offensive as interfering in Saudi domestic politics. Riyadh has become especially sensitive about Yemen issues in recent years and even intervened militarily on the side of the Yemeni government in the most recent phase of the Houthi war in Sa’ada province. The Saudis are also deeply involved with Yemen in the struggle against al-Qaeda due in part to a 2009 merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of this organization. The merger occurred following the decision of Saudi al-Qaeda members to flee to Yemen to rebuild their battered organization. Saudi Arabia’s special relationship with Yemen can both help and hinder U.S. objectives for that country.

Additionally, Yemen’s government has waged a struggle against al-Qaeda with vacillating levels of intensity since at least 2001 when its leadership chose to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism concerns in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, strikes. More recently, Yemen has emerged as one of the most important theaters for the struggle against alQaeda, as many members of this organization attempt to regroup and reorganize themselves in Yemen after suffering crippling setbacks in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The loss of Yemen to al-Qaeda would be particularly damaging to Western interests due to its strategic location and a population which is expected to exceed half of that of the entire Arabian Peninsula within the next 20 years. Moreover, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered in Yemen, appears to be strengthening and showing signs of transitioning from a terrorist group with limited capabilities to an emerging insurgent movement.

Yemen is also an especially distrustful and wary nation in its relationship with Western nations, and particularly the United States. Most Yemenis are fiercely protective of their country’s independence from outside influence, especially from countries that they believe do not always have the best interests of the Arab World in mind. While Yemen’s government is coming to understand the dangers it faces from al-Qaeda, the struggle against this organization is not always popular among the Yemeni public, and any large-scale U.S. military presence in the country could easily ignite these passions and destabilize the regime. Under such circumstances, it is important to help Yemen, but to do so in ways that are not viewed as intrusive or dominating by a population that does not always identify with U.S. concerns about international terrorism. In recent years, U.S. policymakers have managed to maintain this balance, but the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics will continue to require subtlety and nimbleness in U.S.-Yemeni security relations.


The United States is currently deeply concerned with the need to contain and defeat al-Qaeda forces in Yemen. Nevertheless, it seems impossible to formulate a meaningful strategy to meet this objective without carefully considering a variety of other important factors which have come to dominate Yemeni politics. These factors include a crippled and declining economy, as well as recurring problems with national unity. Currently, Yemen faces simmering unrest in the north that sometimes leads to revolt among Houthi tribesmen and a strong but mostly nonviolent secessionist movement in the south. Under these conditions, U.S. policy must be informed by a deep understanding of both Yemen’s domestic politics and current Yemeni government capacity to enforce its laws and maintain internal security. U.S. policy formulations must also be based on a solid understanding of the constraints that influence Yemen’s leadership, especially the nuances of Yemen’s relations with its most influential neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and the views of the Yemeni public on both al-Qaeda and U.S. objectives in the region.

The tasks associated with developing and implementing effective policy for Yemen are challenging. Yemen is remote from the United States and has traditionally generated little interest in Washington. Until recently, it has seldom been linked to important U.S. national interests. Moreover, Yemeni values and attitudes have been formed within a very different type of society than those of the West. The potential for distrust, misunderstanding, and miscommunication is therefore strong, although the importance of the U.SYemeni relationship has seldom been greater, due to a variety of factors including the rise of al-Qaeda in that country. Fortunately, while Yemeni society and politics are complex, they are also comprehensible. Moreover, well-informed U.S. planning efforts to help Yemen and ensure stability in the Arabian Peninsula are clearly possible.

This work hopes to provide an overview of many of the most important issues that must be considered when addressing Yemen policy, as well as suggesting possible approaches to obtaining important U.S. and Yemeni goals in the region. It is hoped that the reader will find this work useful in understanding and untangling many of the complexities of the Yemeni political, economic, and international situations that touch upon key U.S. and Western interests.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The problems in Yemen defy easy answers and are often viewed as so overwhelming that they can be approached only in a tentative, trial-and-error manner. The United States must therefore remain aware of the potential for the situation to get worse in Yemen before it gets better. Moreover, Yemen’s security difficulties are so interrelated that it is difficult to solve the al-Qaeda problem in any fundamental way without some progress in managing the other difficulties in Yemen. President Obama’s statement that he has “no intention” of sending troops to Yemen is reassuring to most Yemenis and indicates reasonable concern over the danger of falling into a significant military intervention. Such an intervention would consume U.S. lives and resources and could only make the security situation in the region increasingly unstable. This set of problems does not require the United States to remain aloof from Yemen’s problems. Rather, it suggests that Washington’s involvement in Yemen must be structured in ways that the political culture will accept. Unfortunately, for the time being the United States may have to focus on helping Yemen contain or manage problems rather than solve them.

The difficulties associated with managing Yemen policy should nevertheless not be allowed to obfuscate the high stakes of the current situation in Yemen. There are important reasons for defeating al-Qaeda in Yemen, even if this does not destroy the organization and instead leads it to move operations to more hospitable sanctuaries in remote parts of the world. Yemen is central in the struggle against al-Qaeda due to its key strategic location, including a 700-mile border with Saudi Arabia. It also dominates one of the region’s key waterways, the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which controls access to the southern Red Sea. Furthermore, the problem of Yemen-based terrorism remains an important international threat which cannot be ignored. The U.S. leadership may have narrowly escaped unmanageable domestic pressure for an additional war in the Middle East when the Christmas bomber plot was thwarted in late 2009. If this incompetent enemy had actually been able to detonate his explosives, the call for a hard-line military response would have been difficult to resist. Yet, an actual invasion of Yemen would have produced a vicious indigenous response that would have been difficult to contain. Moreover, any effort to rebuild, modernize, and democratize Yemen in the aftermath of such an intervention would make the problems of Afghanistan and Iraq look simple by comparison. While paying special attention to Yemeni sensitivities about foreign influence, the United States must do what it can to prevent Yemen from falling into a cauldron of radicalism before the subject of intervention even arises.

The Yemeni political system is likely to remain unstable, and the economic system is likely to remain impoverished, for the foreseeable future. Central governmental authority in the hinterland can be expected to remain limited for the foreseeable future. It is also possible that the country could collapse into anarchy over the next decade or so as the current problems continue to intensify. Helping Yemen manage these problems will be difficult since a constant distrust of U.S. actions is always present in Yemeni politics. Within this especially difficult milieu, this report makes the following recommendations.

1.    The United States must not seek to Americanize the conflicts in Yemen, and should avoid sending major combat units there. However bad the situation may become in Yemen, Americanizing the war against AQAP can only make it dramatically worse. Yemeni public opposition to the presence of ground troops with combat missions is almost universal, and it is possible that large elements of the Yemeni public would rise against their president and parliament if the government invited the United States to provide such forces. Certainly, the Yemeni clergy is particularly shrill on this subject, and this intensity goes far beyond the strident voices of well-known radicals such as Sheikh Zindani. The United States should understand that an alliance with Yemen can only go so far, and that the Yemeni government has good reasons for limiting its public cooperation with the United States.

2.    The United States needs to continue supplying intelligence, training, and military equipment to Yemen so long as these assets directly support counterterrorism missions. So far, the United States has been highly effective in tailoring its military aid to Yemen in ways that focus on the needs of the counter-al-Qaeda mission. Small units of elite troops with a rapid movement capability can be extremely effective in dealing with terrorists, although their ability to add capabilities to deal with problems in the Houthi areas or the activities of the Southern Movement are much more limited. Should AQAP be able to develop into a widespread and effective insurgent force, the United States will have to expand aid in ways that are less counterterrorism focused. The United States will then have do everything possible to avoid becoming viewed as a party to Yemen’s other conflicts. The United States must also structure its military support to Yemen in ways that continue to enhance a long-term military relationship between the two countries and expose the Yemenis to U.S. concepts of military professionalism. Such an approach would include particular vigilance in providing ongoing opportunities for Yemeni officers to train in the United States in programs such as the Professional Military Education (PME) courses. Such courses give international officers an opportunity to forge close relationships with American officers and to consider the importance of respect for human rights within a military context. To the extent possible, U.S. military training programs and educational opportunities must also share relevant counterinsurgency doctrine and expertise with the Yemeni military, and help them rise above an “Operation Scorched Earth” mentality.

3.    The United States, and particularly the U.S. military assistance program for Yemen, needs to recognize and respond to the changing nature of the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen. AQAP is no longer simply a terrorist group, although that organization’s potential to do harm through spectacular acts of terrorism remains undiminished. It is now an insurgent organization capable of waging sustained combat against government forces. It is also apparently capable of establishing itself in those territories where the government traditionally exercises little authority so long as AQAP can co-opt or intimidate the local tribal leadership in these areas. This danger suggests that the United States may have to expand its military assistance to Yemen, while maintaining as light a footprint as possible and avoiding the deployment of U.S. troops for anything other than training. Military planners need to consider ways to address the problems that may be associated with an expanded aid program, while seeking continued input from those on the ground on how such programs can be improved.

4.   U.S. leadership must remain aware of the severe limitations of the Yemeni government in controlling its own territory, but it must also understand that there are no serious alternatives to the Saleh regime in dealing with the current threats to the region and the world emanating from Yemen. The United States must also maintain an ongoing and comprehensive dialogue with the Yemenis on ways that al-Qaeda can be defeated in Yemen. It might also be considered that President Obama is more popular in the Arab World than most previous American presidents due to his well-received outreach efforts to the Muslim world. It may be possible that Yemen will find cooperation with President Obama to be less domestically controversial than cooperation with his predecessors.

5.    The United States should continue to push for peaceful solutions of the Sa’ada difficulties and the Yemeni government’s problems with the Southern Movement. The United States should not abandon its support for a one-Yemen policy without strong and ongoing provocation from the Yemeni government. If it eventually does consider revising this policy, it should do so only after careful discussions and coordination with regional allies. This is not because the southern Yemeni cause is without merit, but rather because any U.S. intervention in sensitive internal issues can sometimes create new problems for all involved parties. The danger of the south fragmenting into a series of competing mini-states also needs to be considered, as such a development could harm regional security and provide al-Qaeda with increased opportunities for alliances and sanctuary. The key problem for the United States in leaving the issues of the Southern Movement unaddressed is that the current frustration of the southerners may lead to increased radicalization over time. Al-Qaeda is clearly trying to harness the energy of the Southern Movement for its own ends. While most southerners seem repelled by al-Qaeda, this may not continue for the indefinite future if frustration levels are allowed to rise. It is therefore imperative that the Yemeni government dramatically improve its governance activities in the south and avoid policies that cause southerners to feel exploited by the government.

6.   The expansion of good governance in Yemen is important, and any U.S. efforts to support this goal need to be carefully considered in consultation with Yemeni leaders. The Yemeni population has a number of needs that must be addressed in the short term before democratic expansion becomes discussable. There is deeply entrenched corruption in Yemen that is part of the political culture. The United States has not been able to halt the rampant corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and it cannot be expected to implement fundamental ameliorative changes in Yemen. Nevertheless, ways need to be found to reduce corruption to the point that the intentions of important international aid projects are not subverted.

7.    The United States should support the work of effective and trustworthy nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Yemen. The United States cannot solve the problem of al-Qaeda in Yemen with development aid administered by U.S. personnel, but it can certainly encourage and support the work of responsible NGOs, and ask other developed countries to do the same. Their role is vital since there are relatively few individuals in the Yemeni government who can impartially administer well-funded development programs. Such programs will have to address a myriad of economic problems in order to help Yemen in a meaningful way. Programs to help address the severe and rising problem of unemployment, particularly among young people, may be especially important. The Yemeni bureaucracy is not up to many of the tasks associated with development since it is both riddled with internal problems and maintains only a limited ability to operate outside of Sana’a. This situation greatly magnifies the importance of NGOs.

8.    The United States needs to involve Saudi Arabia in efforts to help Yemen, while recognizing that U.S. and Saudi interests in Yemen will not always coincide. So long as it remains Yemen’s largest aid donor, Saudi Arabia will always have a great deal to say about Yemen’s future actions. The Saudis also have tremendous concern about al-Qaeda activities in Yemen, having endured a terrorist bombing campaign within their own country which reached its height around 2004-05. Also, as noted, al-Qaeda forces in Yemen remain interested in striking at Saudi targets to the extent they are able to do so as indicated by the nearly successful effort to murder Prince Mohammad bin Nayef. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia can be seen to play a negative role to the extent that it funds and encourages clerics and Islamic organizations that engage in activities which harm Zaydi-Shafei relations. The United States therefore needs to encourage Saudi Arabia to follow policies that indicate respect for, or at least a limited tolerance of, Zaydi Islam. While the Saudis may not truly feel such respect, they have a vested interest in preventing the Houthis from turning to Iran as their only regional sympathizer and ally. Since current tensions between Riyadh and Tehran are quite high, this is a concern worth repeating and emphasizing in dialogue with the Saudis.

9.    The United States may also want to consider encouraging other Arab allies beyond Saudi Arabia to take a more active role in helping Yemen, although such plans will have to be discussed with both Sana’a and Riyadh in considerable detail. It is, for example, possible that the Jordanian government could serve as an increasingly useful ally in supporting Yemen. The Amman leadership detests al-Qaeda and has a long history of cooperating with Gulf Arab states in working against the organization. This cooperation includes counterterrorism training at the King Abdullah II Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC). Additionally, if Iraq is able to bring its own problems under control to the point that it can direct serious attention to regional problems, it may wish to resume military-to-military cooperation with Yemen in ways that encourage the Yemenis to avoid total dependency on Riyadh. It is also possible that Yemeni military forces could benefit from increased combined exercises with other Arab states and even peacekeeping training. Again, the role of Jordan could be useful in teaching Yemen troops how to address some security problems with minimum force being directed at the population in conflict areas. While the Jordanian approach to this issue specializes in international peacekeeping, some of the principles used in an international environment may be relevant to places such as Sa’ada province and various trouble spots in southern Yemen. Jordan maintains a Peacekeeping Operations Center Based in Zarqa. Since 1989, 61,000 Jordanian troops have participated in peacekeeping operations in 18 conflict areas, giving them a wealth of information and experience that Yemen may find useful.254 Since Jordan is not a wealthy country, funding from the United States, European Union, wealthy Arab states, or elsewhere would be needed to move forward on such efforts.

10.    The United States must remain aware of potential Iranian activities in Yemen, while bearing in mind that Yemeni charges of Iranian intervention in the Houthi rebellion remain unproven and difficult to evaluate. If the Yemenis have presented any proof to the United States of Iranian involvement in northern Yemen, they have not done so publicly. Moreover any secret proof made available to Washington has remained secret in a way that is unusual in Washington. However, we do not know that Iran is involved. Tehran could certainly be playing a role in Yemen, while leaving only the lightest of footprints. In particular, Yemeni rebels do not require weapons transfers from outsiders like Iran in order to wage war against the government. Weapons are so widely available in Yemen that this is probably one of the least effective strategies for supporting the rebels. Rather, Houthi insurgents need money to keep their cause alive, and transfers of funds are more difficult to ascertain or prove.

11.    The United States must not assume that Saudi de-radicalization programs will work well with Yemeni radicals. It must also accept the fact that the Yemeni de-radicalization programs have turned out to be failures for reasons related to both funding and national culture. The Saudi system has mostly succeeded because the former radicals are carefully reintegrated into society, with good jobs and encouragement to marry if they have not already done so. The former radicals are placed under the close supervision of senior members of their families and tribes who will be held responsible if they return to jihadi activity. This skillful blend of carrots and sticks means that ex-radicals would have to give up a comfortable life style and betray their family in order to return to jihadi activities. While some of them do so, many do not. Yemen is totally unable to recreate this system, and placing Yemeni jihadis in the Saudi program will not lead to successful results since the Yemenis will move beyond the reach of Saudi security forces and the Saudi incentive structure for remaining out of trouble once they return to Yemen.

12.    U.S. officials, including military officials, must resist all temptations to take public credit for and celebrate military victories that might occur against al-Qaeda forces in Yemen. While U.S. support for Yemen is important and must be continued and accelerated, both the U.S. administration and the U.S. Government agencies involved in fighting terrorism must not contribute to the misperception that Washington is running the war. U.S. officials who openly congratulate themselves about U.S. victories are hurting the cause they profess to help. Praising the Yemeni government for these victories will have to be sufficient.

13.    As in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will have to be tolerant of the Yemeni government’s willingness to pardon and rehabilitate former members of al-Qaeda that have not been involved in international terrorism and show good prospects for remaining outside of terrorist groups in the future. If the Yemeni government wishes to pardon them for attacks on the Yemeni military, that is an internal affair so long as measures are taken to ensure that repentant terrorists never rejoin al-Qaeda or similar groups. What the Yemenis must not do is pardon terrorists and then fail to keep track of them or their activities. Foreign assistance in the use of bio-metric data might be an option worth considering in these instances.



254. For a more detailed exploration of these issues, see W. Andrew Terrill, Global Security Watch Jordan, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010, pp. 42-44.