Anybody curious about how and why Yemen became a place where al Qaeda and other jihadist groups operate with apparent impunity--while its government claims to be a reliable ally of the United States--should simply look at a map of the Middle East. Throughout its history Yemen has been different from the rest of its neighbors. It is, in truth, a local pivot--but a permanently wobbling one. It now faces an existential threat, as radicals from within in its borders and around its neighborhood threaten to destroy it, with the apparent complicity of--or at least, a dangerous passivity on the part of--its rulers. In this it resembles that other strategic hub and Islamist target, Pakistan.
Thomas Joscelyn has emphasized the high number of Yemeni captives at Guantánamo and the absurdity of their proposed repatriation--now suspended by President Obama. Yemen’s government claims to support the U.S. against radical Islam, but has a demonstrated record, under long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh, of compromise with the extremist enemy. Yemen probably first came to the attention of most Americans when the USS Cole was attacked in the harbor at Aden, the traditional local port, in 2000. The Cole was engaged, lest we forget, in a routine refueling call to a “friendly” state. A paramount example of the apathy of Saleh’s government toward its, and our, radical enemies came with the 2006 prison break in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, when 23 al Qaeda captives, including 13 convicted for involvement in the Cole bombing, escaped detention.
Saleh has presided since 1978 over the former Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), and since 1990 has ruled the united country, which combined North Yemen with the former South Yemen. South Yemen was the only Arab country ruled by a full-fledged Soviet-style regime, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), from 1969 to 1990. The PDRY sent its military for training in Cuba--and some of the veterans of Cuban schooling turned up as jihadist followers of Abdullah Azzam, a mentor of Osama bin Laden, in places as distant from one another as Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Yemen features more out-of-the-ordinary details. Although it has an image as a remote and backward hinterland, it has long been considered a rich center of local trade, it exports oil--though its reserves may run out soon--and it has been a coveted object of invasion and influence by rulers in Africa and the South Asian mainland as well as the Arab core. It was governed by Shia clerics until modern times and as much as half its population belongs to that element of Islam. Long before that, it is believed to have been the territory over which the Queen of Sheba reigned, was the source of the frankincense and myrrh brought as gifts on the birth of Jesus, and was once invaded by Christians from Ethiopia. It had a substantial Jewish population, in the tens of thousands, until the 1950s, when most of the Yemenite Jews migrated to Israel.
The country has been a decades-long target for a takeover and purge by Wahhabi radicals in Saudi Arabia, its northern neighbor. The American-born Yemeni preacher and al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki has found shelter there, one of the beneficiaries of official laxity in Yemen. The German weekly Der Spiegel has disclosed that Anwar Al-Awlaki’s father Nassir is a former agriculture minister in the Saleh government and that Abdulmajid al-Zindani, an infamous jihadist nicknamed “the red sheikh” for his henna-dyed beard, is a presidential confidant.
Al-Awlaki studied, like another American jihadist, the nearly-forgotten Taliban combatant John Walker Lindh, at al-Zindani’s Iman University in Sana’a, which sends agitators to countries like Nigeria, from whence came the foiled Detroit Christmas airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Al-Zindani was listed as a “specially-designated international terrorist” by the U.S. Treasury in 2004, but appears regularly at public functions alongside Yemeni president Saleh. Saleh has asked that the “red sheikh” keep quiet in public, to maintain the appearance of anti-extremist Yemeni unity.
The Yemeni game of public discretion combined with private patronage is, obviously, an old one in the Middle East. With Saudi King Abdullah eager to keep enemies of his inconsistent reform program out of his way, Saudi Arabia has used Yemen as a place to send jihadists capable of upsetting affairs inside the kingdom. The local branch of al Qaeda, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a peculiar phenomenon that seldom targets the Saudis themselves. And when it does, AQAP operations involve experiments--such as that of the so-called “rectal bomb carrier” Abdullah bin Hassan bin Taleh Asiri--who blew himself up, but barely injured his supposed target, Saudi anti-terrorism chief Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, last August. The terror experimenters who apparently invented the body-cavity bomb also produced Abdulmutallab’s “trouser bomb.”
While it is under attack by AQAP, the Yemeni government has been fighting Shia rebels from the Huthi tribe, along its northern frontier with the Saudis, for six years. The Yemeni government, although Saleh is also Shia, has encouraged the Saudis to send Wahhabi fighters and preachers, who consider the Huthis heretics worthy of murder, into the contested region. In November the Saudi air force fired missiles at Huthi camps on the border. In December, Iran was charged with assisting the Huthis, when the speaker of Tehran’s clericalist parliament, Ali Larijani, turned up in Cairo seeking the support of the Arab League for Iran’s nuclear pretensions. Larijani denied that Iran is helping the Huthis, and Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa proclaimed the organization’s support for Iranian nukes. But the well-armed Huthis may also be receiving weapons from sympathetic, or greedy, members of the Yemeni government forces sent to suppress them.
In the latest addition to the chaos, Sufis in the eastern Yemeni region of Hadramaut have found themselves subject to “missionization” by the South Asian radical group Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), which professes Deobandism, the near-Wahhabi form of Islam that produced the Taliban. The Hadramaut Sufis, who have a long history in Islamic spirituality, say TJ cadres were sent to undermine their local communities. TJ claims to accept Sufi practices--even as its Taliban allies demolish Sufi shrines and kill Sufis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another glance at a map is instructive--Yemen and its eastern neighbor Oman are geographically close to Pakistan; Aden and Hadramaut were protectorates of British India, with London governing the area until the establishment of the Soviet-controlled PDRY. As in the case of the USS Cole, Aden was used by the British as a refueling stop for maritime commerce through the Suez Canal. Across the seas south from Yemen lies Somalia, from where members of the Wahhabi Shabaab militia have come to Yemen to battle the Shia Huthis as well as to join AQAP.
With a country infected by nearly all the known varieties of radical Islam, from Saudi Wahhabism and Taliban Deobandism to radical Shiism, and manipulated above all by Riyadh, Yemen’s president seems to have no choice but to pose as a loyal ally of the U.S.--just as he does with everyone else with whom he must contend. But Yemen, of all countries, cannot be considered a reliable partner in the war against radical Islam. Rather, it remains a border zone and marketplace, where all forces gather, all ideologies are offered for sale, and new weapons are improvised and tested, while outside powers alternate in courting the local inhabitants. If it has not reached the failed status of Somalia, it is certainly close.
Yemen is not a partner in the war against terror, although terrorists may tear it to shreds. Rather, it is at best a victim seeking one more--and, in the American form, the most sincere--protector among those competing for its support. Al Qaeda and its partners are probing the weak links in the chain of Muslim countries, and whether by intention or impotence, Yemen has become an exporter, if not a sponsor, of terrorism.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor.