CATF Reports Apr. 19, 2016, 1:41pm


Of all the destabilized governments in the Middle East, Yemen takes the prize for enduring challenges with seemingly no end in sight. Following the Arab Spring overthrow of autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen looked forward to a deceptively positive but short lived tenure of elected President Abdu Hadi. However, Hadi fled the country in March of 2015, ousted by a coalition of native Shiite Houthi rebels and allies of former president Saleh. Fearing creation of another extremist beachhead - and one likely to align with Iranian-backed extremists - President Obama joined with Saudi allies to restore Hadi to power militarily. As with other well intentioned forays in that part of the world, progress comes with a steep price tag. Since violence erupted in March of 2015, roughly 5,000 people have been killed, including over 2000 civilians, and significant numbers of troops from allied Saudi, UAE, and Bahraini regimes have been killed.

There are other politically weak nations in the region, but what has singled out Yemen as fertile ground for such rapid terrorist expansion? Historically, Yemen’s north has been tribally and governmentally unintegrated with its south. Religious divisions, starting with a disgruntled Houthi minority in the north, have always worked tirelessly against centralization. In the 1970s, breakaway Marxists exploiting these divisions established a government in the south, until its imminent collapse more from governmental incompetence than ideology. In truth, Yemen’s central government has never been particularly strong and capable of governing the polyglot of semi-autonomous tribes that formed their own coalitions to govern, repel outsiders, and resolve disputes among themselves. For these reasons, analysts are always reluctant to predict positive outcomes for Yemen but are quick to align when citing steep cultural, economic, and political divisions that further cleave the country along the historic north-south axis.

Houthi alignment with the ousted Saleh forces further eroded the country’s stability. Because a lasting political vacuum draws terrorists like a magnet, the U.S. has found itself obligated to support Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Gulf States to combat the Houthi rebellion. The implication for U.S. counter terrorism policy is that Yemen’s south has received less attention and a predictably slimmer reservoir of counter terrorism resources. In part, the dilemma traces to the historic weakness of Yemen’s government in the south, which leaves the U.S. with limited traction in building effective democratic institutions to support counter terrorism.

The result is that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has seized the initiative in exploiting the government vacuum and - much like Somalia - has established more and more forward bases in South Yemen. For its part, the U.S. once again validated the default option by attacking AQAP strongholds with drones, reporting considerable success in chipping away at the AQAP Yemeni hierarchy. For example, in February, the U.S. reported taking out AQAP’s senior military leader in Yemen - surely a key victory but just one more in the long procession toward stability in the region. So long as Yemen presents an unconventional dilemma for the U.S. - in terms of, at best, only nominal national integration - the U.S. counter terrorism strategy will most probably rely on drone strikes and other manifestations of unconventional warfare.          

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