Yemen's Pivotal Moment: A Report by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute

By Zimmerman, Katherine | AEI Paper & Studies, February 2014 | Go to article overview

Yemen's Pivotal Moment: A Report by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute


Zimmerman, Katherine, AEI Paper & Studies


Introduction

The United States has faced a persistent threat to its homeland from al Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate since 2009. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), like other groups in the al Qaeda network, expanded its area of operations during the security breakdown in Yemen in 2011. It supported the development of an associated group in Egypt known as the Jamal Network in 2011 and 2012, while also fielding an insurgent arm in Yemen, Ansar al Sharia. AQAP's Ansar al Sharia declared an emirate in south Yemen in 2011 from where it threatened Aden, Yemen's second-largest city. Though AQAP no longer directly administers territory in Yemen, the group continues to have a strong presence throughout the south and east of the country and operates cells in the area surrounding Sana'a, Yemen's capital. Leadership attrition may have temporarily reduced AQAP's international operations capabilities, but the key components--its lead bombmaker and leadership intent to attack the U.S.--remain.

America's strategy to counter AQAP is two-pronged. The U.S. conducts direct action operations in Yemen to mitigate the immediate threat to the American homeland and interests abroad and supports Yemeni efforts to reduce the space in which AQAP operates in the country. This strategy relies on the Yemenis to combat and dismantle AQAP's network with limited security assistance. This is a challenging task even for the most capable militaries today. The Yemeni security forces have achieved mixed success and relied in part on local tribal militias. (1) A 2012 offensive regained control of territory from AQAP's insurgent arm, but the militants were not defeated and continue to challenge the state today. The Yemeni military is also fractured, and regular instances of troop insubordination are affecting its ability to conduct operations. As of July 2013, at least 22 different units had rebelled since February 2012.2 The reliance on Yemeni efforts has bedeviled America's strategy in previous years because it requires sustained counterterrorism cooperation from the government and a certain prioritization of the fight against AQAP.

Yemen is at a critical point today. Its progress in the political transition process has been slow, but it is ongoing. Yet even as the country leaves behind the era of its long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, there remain significant challenges ahead. There are two enduring security threats to the state in addition to the one posed by AQAP. Efforts to reform Yemen's government tempered parts of a secessionist movement in Yemen's south, but potential remains for civil unrest in the south. The al Houthis, a group that took up arms against the state previously, gained control of territory in the north in 2011 and 2012, and may directly challenge the state to protect those gains.

In either case, a more exigent threat to the unity or survival of the state would force Sana'a to reprioritize the allocation of limited security resources away from AQAP. It also still remains conceivable that a political detente among the elite in Sana'a ends, and the ongoing struggle for power and access consumes the attention of the central government. Elite patronage networks still extend into the military, despite efforts at reform, and a security vacuum similar to the one that permitted the rise of Ansar al Sharia in 2011 could occur. Poor socioeconomic conditions, a history of corruption, and disappearing natural resources, including water, compound these issues.

Political Transition Process

The protests that broke out in Yemen during the Arab Spring collapsed Ali Abdullah Saleh's ability to retain power in 2011. Saleh had ruled by carefully managing relations with Yemen's tribal leaders and developing a personal patronage network that extended throughout the main functions of the Yemeni state and economy. He placed family members in critical positions within Yemen's security forces and relied on them to meet the various security threats. …

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