by Naadir Jeewa
David Randall and Andrew Johnson in the Independent open their feature article “the axis of terror got bigger yesterday.” Well, not quite. Yemen has been a potential source of terrorist attacks on the West for a large portion of the last decade. The rest of the article is quite good in explaining the dire conditions within Yemen fuelling conflict, but there’s a problem with this:
…there comes to prominence one Yemeni who – in the eyes of America and some leading security specialists – is on a par with Osama bin Laden: Anwar al-Awlaki. Linked to three of the 9/11 bombers, the Fort Hood shootings, last Christmas’s failed "underpants" bomber and the Times Square bombing, he has been described by a US representative as "No 1 terrorist", and yesterday by Sajjan M Gohel, director for international security for the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, as "the most dangerous ideologue in the world".
Umm…no. Anwar al-Awlaki is not a senior figure in AQAP. By focusing strategy on charismatic jihadi PR figures like al-Awlaki, we miss the strategic leaders who perform the nuts & bolts job of actually perpetrating terror, who we really should be focusing on, such as Nasir al-Wihayshi & Qasim al-Raymi, former disciples of Osama Bin Laden.
After the Soviet-Afghan War, Yemeni mujahedeen made a tacit deal with the extremely weak regime of President Saleh’s, allowing them freedom of movement as long as they didn’t challenge the regime. However, in February 2006, 23 Al Qaeda suspects, largely rounded up by Saudi Arabia, plus al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi escaped from prison. Several months later, Yemen experienced car bombings and attacks on oil installations. Ever since, terrorist attacks have been on the rise.
The official response is to single out Al-Awlaki for targeted killing by drone strikes. Legal issues notwithstanding, drone strikes have been a major driver of recruitment by causing civilian casualties, and this is easily woven into a narrative that conflates internal Yemeni conflict with the United States.
I’m not entirely sure what the best way forward is. Perhaps it’s some sort of counterinsurgency campaign – but this will take resources the Yemeni forces don’t have. Some attempt to resolve President Saleh’s on-off civil war with the Houthis would help, which is currently a distraction from defeating Al Qaeda. And some economic growth to offset a rapidly growing population, declining receipts from the sale of oil, and a drug problem with large segments of the population addicted to Qat, the cultivation of which is fuelling water-based conflict.
By and large, the story of counterterrorism operations in Yemen will be a local one, dealing with local actors, most of whom, the press will never bother reporting on.
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Filed in: Current affairs,Middle East