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Despite need for more Western aid, US faces few options in Yemen

Despite Yemen's long-running requests for more international aid to combat extremism, the US and other Western powers face limited options for counter-terrorism operations in the country.


Longtime concerns over the activities of Islamist militants in Yemen were again thrown into the spotlight when al Qaeda’s branch in the country claimed responsibility for a failed attack on Christmas Day in which a Nigerian national tried to blow up a US-bound passenger plane over Detroit.

In recent weeks, Yemeni forces have stepped up operations against militants based in the country, launching raids on suspected al Qaeda targets in areas north of the capital, Sanaa, on December 17 and 24, killing more than 60 militants. Two more suspected Islamists were killed in Monday clashes as Yemeni forces searched the Arhab region for suspected al Qaeda leader Mohammed al-Hanq, who managed to flee the fighting. Thousands of troops have been mobilised against al Qaeda over the past three days.

The scale of the militant threat Yemen is facing is not lost on the West, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning this week that the trouble brewing in the country would have consequences across the globe. "The instability in Yemen is a threat to regional stability and even global stability," Clinton told journalists after Monday talks with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani.

Yemen: A new haven for Al-Qaeda?

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called last week for an international conference on extremism and security threats originating in Yemen to be held on January 28 in London.

Western help on terrorism ‘inadequate’

But even as Yemen tries to disrupt al Qaeda’s terrorist networks in the country, it faces an additional military threat from Shiite fighters in the north and political fracture in the south as an independence movement gains momentum.

Yemeni officials have repeatedly requested Western aid in the country’s counter-terrorism efforts, but that help has been slow in coming despite the widespread view that Yemen has become a safe haven where militants can plot attacks to be carried out beyond its borders.

Foreign Minister Abubakr al-Qirbi reiterated on Monday that Yemen needs help to tackle its militants and emphasised that it is in the global interest that it succeed. "Certainly there is a problem with al Qaeda and an interest among the international community in its activities," Qirbi said while on a visit to Qatar. “Yemen is capable of confronting these groups, but it needs international aid to form and train anti-terrorist units, as well as economic aid.”

In an interview last week with the BBC, Qirbi singled out the United States, Britain and the larger European Union, saying more assistance from them would be needed if Yemen is to bring its militants to heel.

“There is some support that is coming, but I must say it is inadequate,” he told the broadcaster. “We need more training, we have to expand our counter-terrorism units, and this means providing them with the necessary military equipment and ways of transportation.”

“We are very short of helicopters,” he added.

US President Barack Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, said on Sunday that the United States was in a "determined and concerted effort" to help fund Yemen's counter-terrorism efforts.

A January 3 statement from Brown's office said that Britain and the United States had agreed to fund counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen and boost peacekeeping in Somalia. "Downing Street and the White House have agreed to intensify joint US-UK work to tackle the emerging terrorist threat from both Yemen and Somalia in the wake of the failed Detroit terror plot," the statement said.

Diplomatic efforts have also been stepped up, with the top US commander in the region, General David Petraeus, meeting Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Saturday to, among other things, congratulate the Yemeni leader "for the success of the operations" against Al-Qaeda and reaffirm Washington's support for Yemen in its efforts to fight terrorism.

Total US development and security assistance to Yemen is expected to rise to $63 million in the 2010 fiscal year, up from $40.3 million dollars in 2009, according to the State Department. The Pentagon has been helping train and equip Yemeni security forces since 2006.

No US military option?

Beyond boosting aid to the Yemeni government, however, Washington’s options may be limited. US military action could prove counterproductive for a US ally whose weak government presides over a population where anti-American sentiment is rife.

The addition of a US troop presence in Yemen would be complicated by geography, with Washington’s longtime ally Saudi Arabia at risk of finding itself with US troops at its frontiers with both Yemen to the south and Iraq to the north -- a prospect that is likely to prove politically unpopular.

“American military cannot deploy in Yemen the way they have been able to in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Ginny Hill, director of the Yemen Forum at London-based think tank Chatham House. “They are going to have to find a way to adapt to the specific location of Yemen.”

Asked what the reaction in Yemen would be to a US troop incursion aimed at routing al Qaeda, Yemen’s ambassador to France, Khaled Ismail al Akwah, was unequivocal.

“Look, no one sends any troops to a sovereign country,” al Akwah told FRANCE 24. Instead, he said, “there is cooperation between countries, there is exchange of information and there is an exchange of intelligence information”.  

Sending US troops would be “like an invasion”, Akwah said. “I don’t think this is in anybody’s mind.”

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But if faced with a US request to host troops, would Yemen welcome the military support?

“I think Yemen is capable of facing the challenges it is facing at the moment, provided they [are] given the adequate technology and assistance,” al Akwah said.

Mathieu Guidère, a professor at the University of Geneva and co-author of the Al Qaeda Recruitment Manual (Le Manuel de Recrutement d’Al-Qaida) agreed that there is no US military option in Yemen. “It would be a catastrophe for all the region,” he said.

Guidère says the international community must pursue a two-pronged strategy, tackling the terrorist threat and the trend toward radicalisation simultaneously. To counter the radicalisation of the population, he says solving Yemen’s economic problems, better education and ensuring water security are key. But counteracting the terrorist threat is a question of addressing ideological and political issues, including the country’s widespread corruption.  

Political analyst Khaled al Haroji agreed that solving the country’s systemic economic problems must be part of any successful counter-terrorism strategy. “The economic problems faced by Yemen, and the high rate of unemployment and poverty, is a suitable breeding ground for al Qaeda,” al Haroji told FRANCE 24. “Many young Yemenis are frustrated, and will turn to this organisation.”


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