Magazine article Newsweek

The Crisis in Yemen Deals a Blow to the War on Terror; America's War against Al-Qaeda Hits a Land Mine in Sanaa

Magazine article Newsweek

The Crisis in Yemen Deals a Blow to the War on Terror; America's War against Al-Qaeda Hits a Land Mine in Sanaa

Article excerpt

Byline: Benny Avni

Jamal Benomar was worried. Late last month, he was talking to me on the phone as he waited to fly to the Persian Gulf. Yemen was on the verge of collapse, and Benomar, the United Nations special envoy to the country, was hoping to bring its warring factions together.

For years, the Moroccan-born British diplomat had been warning international leaders that stabilizing Yemen's internal politics was critical to defeating Al-Qaeda. But as he landed in Yemen last month, the country, which is heavily divided over religious, tribal and other alliances, continued to crumble. "Maybe now," Benomar said, the world "will listen."

In January, the Houthis, an armed group in northern Yemen, allegedly with ties to Iran, tightened their grip around the capital city of Sanaa. Gunmen surrounded the presidential palace and trapped the Western-backed leader, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, at his nearby residence.

The news sent shudders across the region, where many already fear Iranian influence. After speaking with Benomar, the U.N. Security Council released a unified statement, supporting Hadi. The Saudi-backed Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional body of Arab countries, later did the same, calling Hadi's ouster a "coup" and vowing "all necessary means" to return him to power.

To no avail. On January 22, Hadi, along with Prime Minister Khaled Bahah and the rest of the Yemeni government, resigned. And Benomar began scrambling to meet with local leaders--from tribal elders to business tycoons--to try to peacefully end the crisis.

His task remains daunting. Not only are many in the Gulf and the West worried about Iran gaining a foothold in Yemen; they're also concerned the Houthis may be able to exploit sectarian tensions and hinder America in its war against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Benomar--and Yemen--have been at this crossroads before. In 2011, the Arab Spring spread to the streets of Sanaa, as protesters forced longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. He was once considered a linchpin in the fight against terror, but the U.S. turned against him after the protests and now considers him untrustworthy.

Not long after Saleh's ouster, Benomar, along with other diplomats and a coterie of Yemeni leaders, helped steer the country toward peace. In 2012, the nation elected Hadi in what many observers called a remarkably inclusive political process. Yemen, a country largely known for chaos and qat, a local stimulant, was now being hailed as a promising experiment in democracy. And the government in Sanaa seemed even more committed than Saleh was to fighting terror.

Indeed, with Hadi's backing, the CIA and U.S. Air Force increased their use of killer drones to hunt down suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists. As President Barack Obama put it in a September 2014 speech, the U.S.'s "strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen."

But not everyone was happy with the new government. Namely the Houthis, who objected to a proposed constitution that would set up a federal system and divide the country into six regions. "They wanted more territory, with natural resources and access to the sea, under their control, and they couldn't get it," said Nidaa Hilal, a former U. …

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