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Paradigm shift

April 7, 2011

The US has condemned the heavy-handed response by Yemen's security forces to protests across the country. Military aid to Yemen could be cut, which in turn could have a serious impact on the fight against terror.

US flags over YEMEN map
The US considers Yemen an important partner in counterterrorism effortsImage: AP Graphics

Yemen has been one of the main operation areas on the Arabian peninsula of the US fight against terror in the past years. The US considers President Ali Abdullah Saleh one of its key partners in its fight against al-Qaeda. He has willingly opened his country to everything from CIA activities to US military strikes against alleged terrorists - provided that the military aid for Yemen flowed abundantly.

Now, Saleh's country is in revolt. Since the unrest began in Yemen, more than 120 people have been killed in the protests. The regime's security forces have repeatedly shot unarmed demonstrators. Saleh refuses to give up power despite growing international pressure.

Just a few weeks ago, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates apodictically said that no one should get involved in Yemen's domestic affairs. But earlier this week, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States "strongly condemns the use of violence by Yemeni government forces against demonstrators in Sanaa, Taez and Hudaydah." Saleh has apparently become obsolete as an ally in the fight against terror.

Ali Abdullah Saleh
Saleh has been in power for 32 yearsImage: dapd

"Our position with regards to working with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism efforts is that it is not and has not been focused on one person - nor should it be," Carney said. "We are obviously concerned that in this period of political unrest, al-Qaeda and other groups will attempt to take advantage of that power vacuum and that's one of the reasons why we urge political dialogue to take place."

Carney said the timetable mentioned by Saleh for this transition had to begin.

Threat of military cuts

Saleh's fall from grace in Washington is also evident in the fact that there is no more military aid earmarked for Yemen in the defense department's budget proposal. In 2010, the Pentagon had provided $150 million (105 million euros) for training and arming Yemenese security forces. In 2009, Washington supported the Arab country with $67 million.

Western officials believe al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen was behind a failed plot to blow up an airplane bound for Detroit on Christmas 2009. In Europe, an attempt to detonate explosives in packages from Yemen last year on a cargo plane bound for Chicago caused an additional stir. But it isn't only the US that is concerned that the political unrest in Yemen, Saleh's loss of power and the political fragmentation in the country could also lead to a growing terror threat.

The wrong approach?

Independent journalist and terror expert Jeremy Scahill recently travelled through Yemen. He said the purely military approach by the US in Yemen is the actual mistake.

arms of protestors with words GO and GET OUT written on them
Anti-government protestors want Saleh to goImage: AP

"If individuals have the ability to take down an airplane, certainly that's something that's frightening and it's scary, but it doesn't represent an existential threat to the United States," Scahill said. "So what the Obama administration has done is really use a hammer in these operations when they probably call for a scalpel."

The US administration in the past has even deployed Tomahawk missiles to eradicate alleged terrorist targets. Civilians were also killed in the process. Scahill, author of the bestseller "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," considers al-Qaeda's presence in Yemen to be overrated.

"The reality is that there are really only by most estimates 300 to 600 core members of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula," he said. "So defense analysts that I've talked to, people from within, the CIA (…) and the special operations community all question the wisdom of approaching Yemen strictly through a military strategy."

More complex reasons

Other experts believe that Yemen became an area of retreat for terrorists precisely because of its underdeveloped structures and fragile political situation.

"The reason why al-Qaeda has survived in Yemen is because you have multiple economic, social and also tribal and political divisions," said Fawaz Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the London School of Economics. "In fact, al-Qaeda is the least of Yemen's problems because Yemen seems to be coming apart."

So far, mainly tribes in southern Yemen have been providing al-Qaeda with shelter. This was less due to ideological conviction than it was their conflict with the central government in Sanaa, Gerges said. If these tribes could be convinced of the benefits of cooperation, the terrorist group would no longer exist in that region. These are deliberations which Washington apparently wants to consider more strongly in its plans for the post-Saleh era in Yemen.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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