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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Yemen Is Unstable & Al-Qaeda Terrorist Cell Haven

Why Yemen's US-Aided Fight Against Al-Qaeda Could Backfire

The attempted Assassination of the British Ambassador to Yemen in April, together with a purported video of the Christmas Day bomber training with Al Qaeda’s branch here, has drawn fresh attention to the need for a strong Counter Terrorism strategy in Yemen.

The United States sharply increased military assistance to Yemen after AQAP claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound flight. In recent months, the Yemeni government has targeted dozens of suspected AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula] operatives – often quietly working in tandem with the US.

But experts caution that unless Yemen diversifies its approach – which led to success in neighboring Saudi Arabia – increased military action as well as overt cooperation with America may ultimately backfire.

“Up until Christmas Day 2009, AQAP ... was stronger in Yemen than it had ever been before. Over the last few months, they’ve taken a series of hits … but none of these have been sort of the debilitating blow that’s going to knock the organization off its tracks for any sustained period of time,” says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University in New Jersey.

A Day In The Life Of Yemen's Counter Terrorism Unit

The main crux of Yemen’s Counter Terrorism offensive is targeted military action by the Yemeni Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), with the aid of American and British funding, trainers, and intelligence. In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorized $150 million in security assistance for Yemen for fiscal year 2010, up from $67 million last year.

According to officials interviewed by Reuters, $38 million of the funding is earmarked for a military transport aircraft, while $34 million will go to "tactical assistance" of Yemen's special operations forces.

The CTU was established in 2003 and consists of 200 fighters who live in barracks at the headquarters of Central Command in Sanaa. They attend training sessions five days a week at a small, primitive obstacle course about eight miles outside the capital.

On a recent day, a small team of soldiers in green camouflage ran drills.

The soldiers ran to a fixed point before lying down and firing at an upper body target. Darting up in unison, they ran to another target point and fired at green glass bottles balanced on a wall, until moving on to firing pistols at a closer range on more targets that appeared to be cut from wood and cardboard. An empty concrete structure approximating a house stands amid the course, where the CTU practices approaching homes.

The CTU also has an all-woman unit consisting of 42 women, who work with female American instructors, who also practice shooting on the course. Overhead, the sound of Air Force practice could be heard.

Maj. Abu Luhom, who has been with the CTU since it was founded, says they have been running more, increasingly successful, missions in recent months: “We owe the credit to American and British training.”

Amar, a young warrant officer, gleamed with sweat under his black helmet and flak jacket after finishing the obstacle course. “Every day we sit with the Americans,” he said, adding that they coach him in house searching, shooting, and medical training. He explained that he trains five days a week and sometimes has night drills – before the interview was abruptly ended by Luhom's directive that soldiers were not authorized to speak to the press.

Yemen's Path To Reform

Almost every news story about Yemen ends with a familiar listing of the various challenges, or “crises,” facing the country. Of those who follow such news regularly, many simply stop reading when the usual litany is presented: civil war, terrorism, secessionism, water crisis, an exploding population, etc. Recent events, from Saudi Arabia’s entanglement in the Houthi rebellion in November of last year, to the failed bombing attempt on an American airliner by a Nigerian trained in Yemen, have served to sharpen international attention on Yemen’s internal issues.

A report from an American think tank summarized the worst fears of many, stating that these interconnected problems “have the potential to overwhelm the Yemeni government, jeopardizing domestic stability and security across the region.” At the center of these discussions is the viability of the Yemeni government in the midst of a sea of crises.

Attempting to bring light into this void is a team of young reformers, who have developed an ambitious ten-point plan of reform. It has been in the works since 2008, but in the last six months, the Ten Point Plan has gained considerable momentum, and now enjoys support from the highest levels of government.

The group behind the plan, including Deputy Minister of Finance Jalal Yaqoub, among many others, have been part of past reform efforts, and are uniquely positioned to answer difficult questions: What reforms are possible? What reforms should we prioritize? What steps need to be taken to achieve them? What are the likely obstacles?

The plan starts with the belief that the core of Yemen’s problems are economic in nature, and dealing with the economy requires focusing on three areas: job opportunities, provision of services, and rule of law. All of the ten points are related to one of these three pillars.

Evolution Of A Plan

The plan began with frank discussions among a group of young reformers in 2008. In June of that year, Jalal Yaqoub penned an article for Yemen Today, presenting the Ten Points (or Ten Priorities, as they have also been referred to) in an abbreviated form. But it did not take off until the summer of 2009.

The plan was revised and presented to Prime Minister Mujawwar in a PowerPoint presentation in July; a month later President Saleh gave his official imprimatur, and the wheels of government started moving to make the plan a reality. An executive office was formed, comprising the relevant ministers. Beneath the executive office is a technical committee, of which Jalal is a member, tasked with working out the fine print. International consultants have been hired to assist with this step, after which the plan will be officially announced.

This is expected to happen in the spring. In the meantime, the Ten Points have been referred to favorably by Barack Obama (in a letter to President Saleh in the fall), and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband at the London Conference back in January. Yemen Today sat down with Jalal to discuss the plan in greater detail.

The Priorities

“Why do we need priorities?” Jalal asks rhetorically, right off the bat. “Yemen faces many challenges; you name it, we have it right now. And we design strategies and plans to deal with these issues; however, we really don’t have enough time, financial resources, or human capacity to address all the challenges at the same time…Therefore, we’re saying that the government must prioritize, and must create success stories for the citizens to see, in the next twenty-four months.”

After looking at the broad range of issues the ten points aim to tackle, from government employment to water, from oil to land, the two-year timeline for the Ten Points seemed quite short. But Jalal made it clear that the idea of a relatively short time frame was to establish, and achieve, clear goals and benchmarks. “We need to create success stories,” he said, and to re-establish the government’s credibility by making visible progress.

The fifth priority, for example, is land reform. Clashes over land are responsible for violence and clogging the courts with intractable case-loads. To solve all the country’s land disputes within two years is not realistic. What the plan hopes to accomplish, however, is to take a few neighborhoods, and register all of the land in those areas, settling disputes once and for all. Such a success story, achievable in two years, would set an example for the rest of the country to follow.

While an issue like land reform enjoys broad consensus, that is not the case for all of the points. The most controversial of the points is a plan to attract one hundred highly qualified Yemenis into the government. Most of them would likely be Yemenis born and/or educated abroad. Jalal doesn’t pull any punches; he believes the low capacity of government employees is one of the greatest challenges facing the government. Senior level officials, whose jobs may be in jeopardy, are not pleased at the prospect of losing their jobs.

Nevertheless, Jalal is insistent: “If there is one priority that is the most important, the one that would make the most change, it would be this one. Because we believe that the core of most of our problems stems from not being able to deliver the services needed to be a success. And why are we not able to deliver these services? Because we cannot plan properly, because we don’t have the right people.”

Many of the points are interconnected, as Jalal readily acknowledges. Priority nine, for example, calls for urgent solutions to the water crisis. Laws to deal with the crisis are in place, it’s just a matter of enforcing those laws; enforcing the rule of law is itself a point (number eight).

The government’s inability to uniformly enforce the law also feeds the aforementioned land issues, which themselves negatively impact the investment environment, the improvement of which is a key to the first and seventh points (Top 100, and Action Plan for Aden, respectively), and so it goes.

One notable absence from the list is corruption, an issue which many Yemenis feel to be at the heart of the country’s problems. “I see dealing with corruption just like you do with terrorism,” Jalal responded. “You have to deal with it in two parallel approaches. One, with extremism, you have to have security measures…But you also have to have development on the ground, with job opportunities and services, like water, electricity, roads, education, and health…This parallels with corruption. You can always just keep putting people in jail, but this doesn’t deal with the root of the problem.

You have to fix the system. I see corruption as a symptom, and [the ten points] are the ingredients that you use to fix the underlying problem.” Education and health care are also not in the plan for the same reason: they are just symptoms of more fundamental problems, which the Ten Point Plan hopes to tackle directly.

While the plan is meant to demonstrate that Yemen can help itself, Jalal doesn’t deny that concerted assistance from the international community will be needed to help the country fend off multiple crises. And the donors themselves are hoping that the government will not only step up to the plate, but will hit a home run as well. The Ten Points could not be more relevant in this regard, given increasing reports (all unofficial so far) that Yemen might enter into an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Such agreements usually call for a government to reduce subsidies by raising prices, while also making cuts to the civil service. The end goal is improving the government’s fiscal health by cutting expenditures, but higher prices and unemployment would be the likely results. The Ten Points, particularly the first three, deal with the same issues, but in a more deliberate, holistic fashion. Rather than immediate cuts to subsidies and the civil service across the board, the plan calls for a measured process, through which greater employment opportunities and improved services would first be provided, softening the blow to the population of eventual price raises and cuts to the civil service.

Government Credibility

A final criticism of the plan is that it fails to deal with what many observers feel to be the central problem of the Yemeni government: over-centralization of authority. Yet those behind the plan are not revolutionaries; they are clearly trying to effect change from within the system. Point six calls for the engagement of the President’s Office (and by extension, his ruling party, the General People’s Congress). The goal of the Ten Points is to re-establish the government’s credibility with Yemeni citizens and the international community, investors and donors alike.

Although the government is criticized from many quarters for corruption, lack of transparency, and a less-than perfect human rights record, there are no realistic policy recommendations which suggest circumventing the central government. Whatever its faults, there is no other institution in Yemen with the potential to bring about the sweeping change necessary.

Public discontent with the government grows as the government’s credibility and ability to provide services decrease. By all accounts, such discontent is feeding the Southern Movement and tacit tribal support for al-Qaeda. The Ten Point Plan is the government’s best chance in a long time to regain the public’s trust. A dedicated team of public servants is working to give the people reason to hope.

But working closely with the US is a difficult balancing act for the Yemeni government, and risks strengthening AQAP’s hand.

“Al Qaeda wants to present Yemen on par with Iraq and Afghanistan ... to present Yemen as being occupied by outside forces, because once they do that, then it throws open the gates of recruitment,” says Mr. Johnsen of Princeton. He describes statements by Yemeni officials that there are no US soldiers in Yemen as “a very sort of calculated quote to indicate to the Yemenis that these aren’t soldiers, they are just advisers – and that the US isn’t occupying Yemen.”

Yemen’s predicament was highlighted when the CIA added to its hit list American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric tied to the Fort Hood shooter and Christmas Day bomber who is now believed to be hiding in Yemen. Initially, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said Yemen was waiting for US evidence of Mr. Awlaki’s terrorism ties before hunting him, but later amended his statement.

“Yemeni authorities look at him [Al-Awlaki] as having links with Al Qaeda and therefore he is targeted by the Yemeni government for arrest and prosecution,” Mr. Qirbi told the Monitor in a follow-up interview in his office. He maintained responsibility for capturing Awlaki was a domestic prerogative. “Outside interference, of course, will create political problems for the government.”
Saudi success has driven militants to Yemen

One country that has struck a balance between public cooperation with the US and countering Al Qaeda is Saudi Arabia, which launched a successful domestic offensive against the group in 2003. Saudi forces are better funded and have been receiving foreign training since the early 1970s, but experts maintain Saudi Arabia’s ability to dispel Al Qaeda stemmed from launching a variety of initiatives, something Yemen hasn’t done.

“The whole point is they’ve done many things and [it’s] precisely the diversity that partly explains the success. They’ve not relied exclusively on force,” says Thomas Hegghammer, research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo. Saudis used propaganda campaigns, constrained the financial resources of militants, limited their ability to acquire weapons, and offered militants amnesty to encourage desertion from Al Qaeda.

“In Saudi Arabia, the violence subsided to the level of zero, one, or two [operations] per year after 2006 and the organization didn’t produce any more propaganda," adds Mr. Hegghammer.

The irony of the success of the Saudi program is that Saudi militants have moved to Yemen. In January 2009, six years after the Saudis bolstered their counterterrorism offensive, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda joined forces under the new name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and made Yemen their base.

“As the security environment in Saudi Arabia has gotten less permissive, these guys will relocate,” says Christopher Boucek, associate at the Carnegie Middle East program in Washington.

Measuring success in either country comes down to “what the militants say and what the militants do,” says Hegghammer. “In Yemen ... Al Qaeda is still carrying out operations at the rate of tens [of] attacks per year and is very active in producing propaganda, so [Yemen has] a long way to go.”

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Sources: CNN, Christian Science Monitor, Yemen Today, Google Maps

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