Al Queda’s New Strategy in Yemen Threatens U.S.-Saudi Arabia Axis

Brooks Foreign Policy Review

ANALYSIS

by Webster Brooks 

Al Queda’s shift in global strategy to transform Yemen into a platform to destabilize Saudi Arabia represents the most serious national security crisis the Obama administration has confronted. Saudi Arabia is the strategic lynchpin of energy security powering the U.S. dominated global order. Any chaos, instability or leadership change in Riyadh that disrupts Saudi oil production could trigger price shocks, a global economic downturn and enhance Iran’s status as the dominant regional hegemon in the Middle East. Osama bin Ladin’s escalation of attacks against the House of Saud comes at a time when U.S. military forces are overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq and American public opinion is staunchly opposed to another military intervention. Given the constraints on his administration’s capacity to commit ground forces to the region, Obama must now rely on President Ali Saleh’s faltering regime to eliminate Al Queda’s growing presence in Yemen’s vast ungoverned spaces. AQAP’s sudden emergence as a serious threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia is not accidental; it is product of Osama bin Ladin’s long-term strategic planning. 

Over the past year Osama Bin Ladin has merged his Saudi Arabia and Yemen operations into Al Queda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Led by Nasser Wahayshi and his Saudi deputy, Saeed al-Shihri, AQAP includes veterans from its defeated insurgency in Saudi Arabia two years ago, along with recruits from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. The new franchise has established command structures, communications lines, base areas and bomb making factories that fabricated new stealth PETN explosives recently tested in Saudi Arabia and the United States. By claiming responsibility for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day attempt to blow up the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit and the August 2009 suicide bomber attack on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohemmend bin Nayef, AQAP has signaled that its presence in Yemen will be permanent, lethal and have global reach.  

Al Queda’s strategy in Yemen seeks to leverage the current crisis of President Saleh’s weak regime into a “state of controlled chaos” that will facilitate AQAP’s a long-term presence to conduct operations that undermine the Saudi government. To that end Bin Ladin’s forces are not necessarily seeking the overthrow of President Saleh’s regime. Quite the opposite, as long as President Saleh’s government remains weak and isolated AQAP’s capacity to expand its base in Yemen will grow. This explains why Al Queda is content with operating “in the seam” of the two insurgencies buffeting President Saleh’s regime; one led by the broad-based Southern Movement to secede from the central government, and the other a tenacious Shiaa-based Al Houthi insurgency backed by Iran along Yemen’s northern border with Saudi Arabia. Both movements serve AQAP’s tactical and strategic goals in Yemen, but in different ways.

That the Sunni dominated AQAP is the beneficiary of the Shia-based Al Houthi’s two-front war against Yemen’s central government and Saudi Arabia is a peculiar irony of the crisis. The Al Houthi’s border war with Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the Saudi royal family, the Saudi army and inflaming the passions of the Kingdom’s oppressed Shia minority concentrated around its  eastern oilfields. For months Riyadh denied that its troops were engaging Al Houthi’s forces on the ground and that Saudi jets were carpet bombing Al Houthi camps. On December 24, the Saudi government reluctantly announced that 70 Saudi soldiers were killed in fierce border clashes. Desperate to liquidate the Al Houthi Shia rebellion on its border, Saudi Arabia has stepped up its bombing campaign and artillery shelling of Al Houthi positions. Riyadh has also tried to deflect the growing political backlash across the Middle East to the atrocities it is committing against the Al Houthi by claiming Iran is supplying funds and weapons to the insurgents–claims that have yet to be substantiated. Thus, the Al Houthi insurgency serves AQAP’s interests on two fronts; destabilizing the Saudi government with its border war on the one hand and draining President Saleh’s government, army and national resources on the other.

AQAP’s relationship to the secessionist Southern Movement (SM) pivots on maintaining friendly neutrality in order to operate and sustain its base camps in eastern and southern Yemen. As a democratic alliance of Nasserites, socialists, labor and business leaders the Southern Movement and Al Queda do not share a common political program or ideology. Nevertheless, the Southern Movement’s anti-American sentiments and its struggle to secede from President Saleh’s U.S.-backed government has positioned the coalition and AQAP on the same side of the political divide. The complication facing the Obama administration in attacking AQAP’s southern bases were evident when U.S. cruise missiles raked the villages of Arhab and Abyan and Shabwah in December. The attacks were not only condemned by local tribal elders but Southern Movement leader Abbass al Asal characterized the strikes as a “genocidal attack on the people of the south, not Al Queda.” The gruesome scenes of 30 dead Yemeni villagers and five AQAP operatives were broadcast across the Middle East on Al Jazeera. The following day, 10,000 people attended a rally held by the SM’s Joint Meeting Parties which condemned “American targeting of civilians.” President Saleh also came under fire as a “U.S. puppet regime” for his army’s role in supporting the cruise missile attacks on Al Queda. The net political effect of the air strikes sparked anti-American rage and further undermined President Saleh’s government while fostering more support for Al Queda. Thus Al Queda is able to use the Southern Movement as a buffer that provides it with political cover and limits America’s freedom to conduct air strikes and Predator drone attacks that invariably kill civilians. In the future, Al Queda will undoubtedly attempt to co-opt elements of the Southern Movement’s diverse coalition in order to broaden its influence and enhance the security of its base operations. Should the Southern Movement formally break away from the Saleh government to re-establish an independent Republic of South Yemen (1967-1990) AQAP’s relationship to the new government will emerge as a crucial issue. A new government in South Yemen could conceivably sanction Al Queda’s presence and further complicate U.S. counter-terrorist operations.         

In response to the AQAP’s offensive, President Obama pledged $70 million to Yemen’s government, increased Special Forces deployments to “train” Yemeni counter-terrorist units and launched cruise missile strikes against Al Queda bases in mid-December. Notwithstanding President Obama’s countermeasures, it’s clear his administration does not have a thoughtful strategy to neutralize Al Queda in Yemen. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community’s failure to recognize the seriousness of AQAP’s buildup and new capabilities until Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas bombing attempt has left the Obama administration desperately playing catch-up.

The Obama administration needs a practical strategy to neutralize Al Queda in Yemen. Such a strategy must begin with preventing the collapse of President Saleh’s regime which cannot survive fighting three insurgencies simultaneously. The Southern Movement and the Al Houthi insurgents are not calling for the overthrow of President Saleh’s government; both seek to break away from the Yemen’s corrupt and criminal regime. Therefore, the Obama administration must convince President Saleh that significant concessions must be made to the Al Houthi and the Southern Movement to stabilize his regime, preserve Yemen’s sovereignty and isolate AQAP. In short, both groups will have to be offered some form of regional autonomy and Yemen must be transformed into a federated state with the central government possessing limited powers.

The most critical first step for the Obama administration to undertake is convincing President Saleh and Saudi Arabia’s leaders to agree to an immediate and unconditional cease fire with the Al Houthi insurgents. Further, the cease fire should include a pledge to enter into negotiations on regional autonomy for the Al Houthi’s, a settlement of Saudi border security issues and Al Houthi representation in a restructured national government. President Saleh’s current Six Point plan to implement a cease fire is nothing more than a call for the Al Houthi’s total surrender. It is a non-starter that should be scrapped immediately. A negotiated cease fire will dramatically reduce pressure on Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s government and limit Iran’s maneuvering room to become more deeply entangled in an insurgency on Saudi Arabia’s border.

Similarly, the Obama administration should enlist the services of a skilled mediator (preferably Qatar’s government) to convene talks between Sana’a and the Southern Movement. Qatar negotiated a cease fire between President Saleh and the Southern Movement in 2007 and is considered by both sides as an impartial mediator. Unless the Southern Movement is offered regional autonomy that grants sweeping autonomous powers similar to those enjoyed by Kurdistan today, it is doubtful that reconciliation can be achieved. In addition to a regional autonomy agreement, Southern Movement representatives must be brought into significant leadership roles in Yemen’s central government to ensure that equity, transparency and reforms are implemented. Anything short of giving Southern Movement representatives a significant role in governing a reformed Yemen, including demands that President Saleh step down as President will justifiably be rejected. President Saleh will not be disposed to concede autonomy to the Southern Movement or the Al Houthi, but a partitioned Yemen and the creation of a new breakaway republic in South Yemen will open the door to more instability in the region, particularly from Iran which has the economic largesse and proximate skills to stand-up a proxy state.

The concessions and compromises that President Saleh must make to the Al Houthi’s and the Southern Movement will dramatically alter the nature of Yemen’s embattled government. However, the alternative is more chaos, civil war, the likely breakup of the state and an enlarged presence of Iran and Al Queda on the peninsula. Arguably, it may already be too late for the United States and their allies to prevent the breakup of Yemen and the collapse of the Saleh regime. AQAP has the momentum. Osama Bin Ladin is dictating the time and place of battle, and the choice of weapons. Yemen is now the “new frontline” in the global war between Al Queda and the United States with Saudi Arabia’s security hanging in the balance.

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