In recent weeks, Yemen has become the new buzzword in the fight against international terrorism. While experts agree the Arabian peninsula nation has an al Qaeda presence, its current threat level remains low - for now.
Al Qaeda is certainly in Yemen but to what extent is unclear
As soon as it was revealed that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was allegedly behind Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's botched Christmas Day bombing of a US airliner, many Western security experts began talking about Yemen as a breeding ground for radical Islamists and the new front for Osama bin Laden's global jihad.
However, Yemen has not suddenly become a potential terror state overnight. British foreign minister David Miliband said this week that AQAP had been "rising on our radar" for 18 months to two years before the Christmas Day attack showed it had the potential to mount global attacks.
AQAP was set up a year ago in a merger of the Saudi and Yemeni franchises of Osama bin Laden's organization.
"Yemen jumped to the top of the list over the holidays but analysts have known that the country has had a problem for years now," Daniel Korski, senior analyst at the European Center for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "When Saudi Arabia cracked down on al Qaeda, many fighters fled across the border and retreated to Yemen. Then there were the returning insurgents from Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom were Yemeni, and the released detainees from Guantanamo Bay. These people, along with the many al Qaeda operatives who broke out of jail in Yemen to become regional commanders in the tribal areas, have been gathering in Yemen for some time now."
Yemen was second only to Saudi Arabia as a source of soldiers for the international Islamist brigade that fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and which eventually mutated into al Qaeda. According to the US State Department, thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of Yemenis fought in Afghanistan or trained in al Qaeda's camps there.
A decade of slowly creeping terror
Al Qaeda affiliates claimed the US embassy attack in 2008
Before Abdulmutallab's attempted bombing of the US airliner over Detroit, the most high profile terror incident involving a group affiliated to al Qaeda in Yemen was the September 2008 attack on the US embassy in the capital Sana'a. A total of 19 people were killed and 16 were injured when members of Islamic Jihad of Yemen attacked the embassy with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons and car bombs.
Low level attacks and killings by suspected al Qaeda-affiliated groups have been reported ever since the bombing on the USS Cole, a US Navy destroyer harbored in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000. The attack killed 17 US sailors and wounded 39 others. Even in the decade before the USS Cole attack, al Qaeda was known to have training camps in Yemen.
Yemen ticking all the right boxes for al Qaeda
According to Daniel Korski, Yemen's socio-economic situation makes it a perfect base for al Qaeda's expansion plans.
Yemen is seen by al Qaeda as a fertile place for recruitment
"Yemen is a very poor country with a very high level of unemployment," he said. "It has experienced a huge population explosion which has produced a lot of disaffected youth, and it's suffering from years of agricultural mismanagement and the effects of the widespread Khat addiction. So Yemen is experiencing a real socio-economic crisis, one which is exacerbated by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's policy on centralizing the power among his northern elite at the expense of the south, causing internal instability."
Korski also believes that Yemen's landscape, its tribal traditions and current instability adds to the attraction for al Qaeda.
"Yemen is one of the oldest seats of Islamic thought and of course it is the ancestral home of the bin Laden family but we shouldn’t read too much into this," Korski added. "The most important factors which have attracted al Qaeda to Yemen are the environment; Yemen is a perfect location for an insurgency with its wild, tribal regions, its honor code for helping foreigners and its ultra-conservative Islamic communities; the fact that the state of Yemeni security is such that people and arms can cross into the country with little trouble, and the political climate which is in itself is creating a climate of instability."
Yemeni forces attempt to disrupt al Qaeda plans
Yemeni forces have been sporadically engaging in combat with elements alleged to be affiliated with al Qaeda over the past few months in an attempt to further disrupt its plans to settle in Yemen.
The Yemeni military have increased raids on terrorists
Attacks on suspected al Qaeda operations in Yemen before Christmas are said to have dealt a hefty blow to the organization's plans to establish a safe haven there and while it is clear that al Qaeda has identified Yemen as a potential new hub, the government has claimed that its countermeasures are keeping them at bay.
A raid by Yemeni forces on al Qaeda camps on December 17, 2009, led to the deaths of 34 suspected al Qaeda members, although local sources claimed that 49 civilians, including 23 women and 17 children, were among those killed. The same day a clash between security forces and al Qaeda members in Abhar left four militants dead.
An air raid targeted an al Qaeda meeting in Wadi Rafadh in Shabwa province on December 24, 2009, reportedly killing 34 militants. Security forces claimed Saudis and Iranians were among the dead.
In a wave of military missions in early January, Yemeni troops allegedly killed AQAP regional leader Abdullah Mehdar and captured five other militants including another senior AQAP commander.
Talk of a new front in 'war on terror' way off the mark
According to the US State Department, al Qaeda’s operational structure in Yemen has been "weakened and dispersed" since September 11. But it admits that Islamists affiliated with al Qaeda still maintain a presence.
But despite evidence which points to a definite al Qaeda presence in Yemen, some experts say that recent reports suggesting that the country could be a new front in the 'war on terror' to rate alongside Afghanistan and Pakistan are wide of the mark.
Officials in Sana'a estimate that AQAP has 200-300 fighters spread out over a few remote areas, including fighters from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Others say it has only a few dozen core members.
"Yemen won't be a new front in the context of the US or anyone else mounting a military campaign there but the new focus in Washington on Yemen will certainly see US attention heighten and efforts to support the Yemeni government intensify," said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The US has good counter-terrorism links with Yemen, it provides intelligence assistance and training and will increase its investment in this to around $150 million a year. It will also increase its humanitarian aid from $20 million to $50 million."
Internal conflicts an equally pressing concern for Yemen
A potential increase in terror activity and the threat of al Qaeda is only one of the challenges currently facing the Yemeni government.
Internal battles are seen as more important than al Qaeda
More serious at the present time are the two internal conflicts that the Yemini authorities are fighting in two regions of the country; the separatist movement in the south and the revolt by followers of Shia cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, head of the Shia Zaidiyyah sect, in the north.
While al Qaeda may be looking to exploit these uprisings, there is no intelligence to suggest that an alliance has been forged between these three groups despite sharing a will to undermine the government's authority and ability.
Christopher Boucek believes, however, that it is imperative to Yemen's future security and its battle against al Qaeda infiltration that these regional conflicts are resolved.
"The civil war in the north especially is making the Yemeni government look weak," he said. "This emboldens others. The government is entirely focussed on the war in the north and the separatist uprising in the south. It is channeling nearly all its resources - both military and financial - into these conflicts, resources that could be used to fight al Qaeda. This also means border control and piracy off the coast are not being dealt with. Until this changes, Yemen is definitely vulnerable."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Michael Knigge