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Growing al Qaeda Threat in Yemen

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 15, 2009

    Yemen has witnessed a number of al Qaeda-led activities in recent weeks. A suicide bomber killed four South Korean tourists in the city of Shibam in Hadramaut province on March 15, 2009. Three days later, al Qaeda attempted an attack on the convoy of the South Korean official delegation that was investigating these killings. These are the latest in a series of attacks on foreigners and foreign-run establishments in the country. Al Qaeda also killed eight Spanish tourists in July 2007, two Belgian tourists in January 2008, launched mortar attacks on the US embassy and the Italian consulate in 2008. An attack on the US Embassy in Saana in September 2008 killed 10 persons and six terrorists.

    Yemen has traditionally been a stronghold of al Qaeda. Apart from being the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, the country’s geographical location, desert and hilly terrain plus the prolonged civil war and political instability led to its becoming a safe haven for terrorists. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Yemeni government, under US pressure, cracked down and successfully undermined al Qaeda’s organizational hold. However, al Qaeda has shown signs of regrouping with an increased spurt in activities in the recent past.

    This can be mainly attributed to the return of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay prison. Al Qaeda has also announced the merger of its Saudi and Yemeni branches into a unified branch called “Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula”. Nasir Wuhaishi is its head and Said Ali al-Shihri, a former prisoner at Guantanamo who was released from Saudi custody in 2007, is the deputy. Wuhaishi was involved in the attack on the American Embassy in Saana in September 2008. Another Guantanamo detainee, Abu Al-Hareth Muhammad Al Oufi, a Saudi national, is now a field commander of the group.

    Al Qaeda based in Yemen and Saudi Arabia has built a close nexus. The long and volatile Saudi-Yemeni border has created opportunities for their activities. The 1,458 kilometre long border is poorly guarded. Tribals living on both sides of the border frequently interact unofficially. Al Qaeda is using them for transporting arms, drugs, money and facilitating the movement of their cadres.

    In Yemen, al Qaeda has been targeting foreign interests, particularly US and European establishments. The recent attacks on South Koreans in March are an exception when non-American and non-Western citizens were targeted. Al Qaeda claimed that the South Koreans were attacked for their government’s involvement in a ‘war against Islam’ and for their association with the ‘crusaders’ in Afghanistan and Iraq. South Korea had sent 3,600 engineering and medical troops to Iraq in 2004 but withdrew these in 2008. It had also deployed troops in Afghanistan who too were withdrawn after the Taliban abducted 23 South Korean soldiers in 2007. The recent attacks may also have been prompted by South Korea’s decision to deploy troops in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia.

    Al Qaeda in Yemen has also appealed to the country’s tribal leaders to defy government orders. Tribal leaders in the country have earlier opposed the government’s undemocratic rule. Al Qaeda has called upon the tribal leaders to fight against the government with the support of local al Qaeda cadres and is inciting them by stating that the government is secretly planning to initiate military action against them. By sympathizing with the tribal leaders it is attempting to exploit the differences between tribal leaders and the government. Al Qaeda not only wishes to weaken the government but also to strengthen its own network in the country, and has not hesitated to make alliances with tribal leaders.

    The Yemeni government is facing criticism for being soft in tackling al Qaeda. In the past, it has been alleged that the government had reached an understanding with al Qaeda, with the latter committing not to attack foreign establishments, citizens and tourists in the country. There are also allegations that the government is using al Qaeda for targeting its political rivals. The ‘escape’ of 23 al Qaeda cadres from a jail in February 2006, some of whom were charged with attacking the American Navy destroyer USS Cole in 2000 and the French oil tanker Limburg in 2002, was seen as a deliberate act to appease the group. More alarmingly, some opposition Members of Parliament believe that al Qaeda has penetrated the Yemeni security forces. The issue came to light in the aftermath of the attack on South Korean officials in March. The question raised was how did al Qaeda receive prior information about the movement of the convoy carrying the South Korean delegation, fuelling suspicions of insider involvement.

    Al Qaeda is on the march in Yemen. Given the lack of effective government mechanisms to check them, their activities are growing progressively. Regular counter-terrorism measures such as arrests, busting networks and foiling suspected terror plots have proved insufficient to deal with al Qaeda. Currently, al Qaeda presents a threat not only to Yemen but also to the whole region. The consolidation and strengthening of al Qaeda in Yemen would only boost the morale of its counterparts in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other countries. The government of Yemen should initiate strong action against terrorist networks without delay.