Primer|National Security   5 Minute Read

Country Brief: Yemen

Published May 20, 2016

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Takeaways

The United States has two strategic interests in Yemen: 

  1. Preventing terrorists from using its ungoverned spaces as a launch pad for attacks against the U.S.; and
  2. Preventing civil conflict that might destabilize Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The United States has had a strong counterterrorism presence in Yemen for years. U.S. drone operations have focused attacks on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which emerged in Yemen in 2009 and evolved to become the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate. However, U.S. efforts to address AQAP and, more recently, ISIS, have been complicated by an ongoing civil war that has morphed into a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen.

Counterterrorism

Yemen is a key battleground against the two most dangerous terrorist groups: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS. For many years, the absence of rule of law throughout Yemen has allowed terrorist groups to proliferate there, and today it is one of the most active terrorist breeding grounds.

In October 2000, al Qaeda bombed the American destroyer USS Cole while it sat in a Yemeni port. After 9/11, the United States decimated al Qaeda in Yemen, but by 2006 the group had recovered, and in 2009 it merged with al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia to become AQAP. Like ISIS in Syria, AQAP has taken advantage of instability in Yemen to seize territory, create safe havens, and conduct operations overseas.1

Fort Hood shooter Nadal Hassan emailed with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born al Qaeda leader who was killed in Yemen in 2011.2 AQAP trained the Christmas Day Bomber, who tried to destroy a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009.3 The United States has thwarted several other plots, including an attempt to destroy U.S.-bound cargo planes in 2010,4 and a 2012 plot to bring down an airliner with an underwear bomb.5 More recently, AQAP claimed responsibility for the attacks on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo6 in January 2015, as well as the November 2015 suicide attack on a Mali hotel.7

Over the past decade, AQAP has suffered significant losses at the hands of American counterterrorism operations, including:

  • Jalal Baleedi, top commander for AQAP (February 2016)8
  • Nasser al Wuhayshi, leader of AQAP (June 2015)9
  • Shawki al Badani (November 2014)10
  • Saeed al Shirhi (July 2013)11
  • Fahd al-Quso (May 2012)12
  • Anwar al Awlaki (September 2011)13

Before 2012, the United States used Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, to attack AQAP from the sky, while the Yemeni military fought on the ground.14 The current conflict in Yemen forced the United States to withdraw personnel from the country while drawing the focus of the Yemeni military away from AQAP. The lack of a ground presence has restricted U.S. insight into terrorist operations.

Meanwhile, ISIS has expanded into Yemen, claiming responsibility for a horrific car bomb in March 2015 that killed over 130 people.15 Vying with AQAP for control, ISIS has bombed Shia mosques across Yemen.16 In December 2015, it claimed responsibility for assassinating one of Yemen’s regional governors.17 Even more recently, ISIS took responsibility for the January 28, 2016 car bombing outside the Yemeni president’s residence, killing eight people. U.S. officials are divided on whether ISIS or AQAP present the more dangerous threat to the U.S. homeland.18

Both AQAP and ISIS take advantage of the chaos created by Yemen’s civil war, aligning with local Sunni tribes who also oppose the Houthis, who are Shia and backed by Iran.19 Until the warring sides can agree on a political solution, the widespread instability will offer a terrorist safe haven while denying on-the-ground intelligence necessary to accomplish U.S. goals.

Yemen’s Civil War

After North Yemen and South Yemen united in 1990, the United States backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who helped U.S. counterterrorism officials target AQAP. Under Saleh, a group called the Houthis began a rebellion in north Yemen, which ended in a 2010 ceasefire.20 Arab Spring protests in 2011 forced Saleh to transition power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.21

The Houthis resumed their armed insurgency and captured Yemen’s political capital of Sana’a in 2014. Hadi fled south to Yemen’s economic capital, Aden, with the Houthis close behind. Saudi Arabia gathered several other Arab states22 and invaded Yemen in support of Hadi, intending to drive the Houthis out of south Yemen.23 The year-long war has killed over 6,500 people, including many civilian victims of Saudi airstrikes.24 Peace talks in Switzerland have stalled.25

Although the United States opposes the Houthis and is arming26 the Arab coalition, U.S. forces are not participating directly.27 U.S. officials have pressed the Saudis to avoid civilian casualties, but have yet to level any public criticism.28 This reflects an American sensitivity to doubts by Arab leaders that the United States is committed to their security, particularly in light of the Iran nuclear agreement. However, there is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen. Although the Saudi-Hadi offensive has pushed the Houthis away from Aden, expelling the Houthis from the Sana’a will be much harder.

Yemen has emerged as a key focal point for competition between Shia-majority Iran and Sunni-majority Arab states. Iran has provided longstanding support for the Houthis, and continues to arm them with heavy weapons. The United States has warned Iran to stop such arms shipments.29 Saudi Arabia eyes the Iran-backed Houthis on its southern border as an obstacle to regional dominance.30 A Houthi state might invite Iran to base military forces on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Although the civil war in Yemen war is about politics, not religion, AQAP is determined to frame the fight as a Sunni-Shia struggle.31

In the absence of stability, terrorists can plan to strike targets in the United States. A diplomatic solution that restores stability in Yemen is critical if the United States wants to resume counterterrorism cooperation with Yemeni security forces. To this end, the United States must use its diplomatic leverage to convince the warring parties to resume stalled peace talks.32

  1. In the last few years, AQAP’s ranks have more than doubled and the group is trying to hold cities in southern Yemen. Bill Roggio, “AQAP overruns Yemeni Army bases, kills 32 soldiers,” The Long War Journal, May 7, 2012. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/05/aqap_overruns_yemeni_1.php#ixzz1xDTNajtx; See also “Yemeni army advances on third rebel-held town,” Reuters, June 14, 2012. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/14/us-yemen-violence-idUSBRE85D0R720120614; Seel also: Sudarsan Raghavan, “In Yemen, US airstrikes breed anger and sympathy for al-Qaida,” The Washington Post, May 30, 2012. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/in-yemen-us-airstrikes-breed-anger-and-sympathy-for-al-qaida-1.179068.

  2. Carol Cratty, “FBI Official: Hasan Should Have Been Asked About E-Mails with Radical Cleric,” CNN, August 2, 2012. Accessed March 18, 2016. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/01/politics/hasan-fbi/.

  3. Peter Baker, “Obama Says Al Qaeda in Yemen Planned Bombing Plot, and He Vows Retribution,” The New York Times, January 2, 2010. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/us/politics/03address.html.

  4. Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, “U.S. Sees Complexity of Bombs as Link to Al Qaeda,” The New York Times, October 30, 2010. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/world/31terror.html?pagewanted=all.

  5. Siobhan Gorman, Laura Meckler and Evan Perez, “Jetliner Bomb Plot Is Foiled,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2012. Accessed June 8, 2012. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304451104577390422568086882.html.

  6. AQAP was not responsible for the November 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 victims and were attributed to ISIS.

  7. CFR.org Staff, “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),” CFR Backgrounders, Council on Foreign Relations, June 19, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/yemen/al-qaeda-arabian-peninsula-aqap/p9369.

  8. “Top al Qaeda Commander Killed in Yemen Drone Strikes,” Reuters, February 4, 2016. Accessed February 8, 2016. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-idUSKCN0VD0G6.

  9. “Yemen al-Qaeda Chief al-Wuhayshi Killed in US Strike,” BBC News, June 16, 2015. Accessed March 17, 2016. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-33143259.

  10. Mohammed Ghobari, “Senior al Qaeda Operative Killed in U.S. Strike in Yemen: Sources,” Reuters, November 5, 2014. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-drones-alqaeda-idUSKBN0IP0GD20141105.

  11. “Al Qaeda Branch Says No. 2 Leader Killed in Yemen,” Fox News, July 17, 2013. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/17/al-qaida-branch-says-no-2-leader-killed-in-yemen.html.

  12. Hakim Almasmari, “Senior al Qaeda Operative Killed by Aistrike in Yemen,” CNN, May 7, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/06/world/africa/yemen-airstrikes/.

  13. Joby Warrick, “Aulaqi Incited Young Muslims to Attacks Against West,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2011. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/aulaqi-incited-young-muslims-to-attacks-against-west/2011/09/30/gIQACMaKAL_story.html.

  14. “US Kills al-Qaeda Suspects in Yemen,” Associated Press, November 5, 2002. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2002-11-04-yemen-explosion_x.htm.

  15. Shuaib Almosawa and Saeed al-Batati, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Deadly Bombings in Yemen,” The New York Times, June 17, 2015. Accessed January 7, 2016. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/world/middleeast/isis-claims-responsibility-for-deadly-bombings-in-yemen.html.

  16. Shuaib Almosawa, Kareem Fahim and Eric Schmitt, “Islamic State Gains Strength in Yemen, Challenging Al Qaeda,” The New York Times, December 14, 2015. Accessed March 15, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/world/middleeast/islamic-state-gains-strength-in-yemen-rivaling-al-qaeda.html.

  17. Simeon Kerr, “Yemen War Deepens as ISIS Admits Killing Aden Governor,” Financial Times, December 6, 2015. Accessed March 18, 2016. Available at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c19bb526-9c25-11e5-b45d-4812f209f861.html#axzz3wZoGyO24.

  18. Eric Schmitt, “ISIS or Al Qaeda? American Officials Split Over Top Terror Threat,” The New York Times, August 4, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/world/middleeast/isis-or-al-qaeda-american-officials-split-over-biggest-threat.html?_r=0.

  19. United States Military Academy, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, “A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen,” Report, Harmony Program, September 2011, p. 37. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CFUQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fkms1.isn.ethz.ch%2Fserviceengine%2FFiles%2FISN%2F133147%2Fipublicationdocument_singledocument%2F6c248e83-5960-4bbf-ae7f-ccc5cce836f2%2Fen%2FCTC_False_Foundation2.pdf&ei=aA7ST-m6Aefo0QGl6c32Ag&usg=AFQjCNF2NZi235jH3L3z4T00JFWN5PNUOQ&sig2=SL9c5MSMVbTkyX35xsIENw.

  20. “Yemen Profile – Timeline,” BBC News, November 25, 2015. Accessed March 21, 2016. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14704951.

  21. Mohammed Mukhashaf and Mohammed Ghobari, “Airstrike in south Yemen, humanitarian crisis looms,” Reuters, June 7, 2012. Accessed July 7, 2015. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/07/yemen-violence-humanitarian-idUSL5E8H77RC20120607.

  22. The coalition includes Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

  23. Shuaib Almosawa and Kareem Fahim, “Toll Rises as Saudi Coalition Steps Up Airstrikes in Yemen,” The New York Times, July 6, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/07/world/middleeast/toll-rises-as-saudi-coalition-steps-up-airstrikes-in-yemen.html?ref=topics.

  24. Agence France-Presse, “Fragile Yemen Ceasefire Teeters as Peace Talks Begin,” Relief Web, December 15, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/fragile-yemen-ceasefire-teeters-peace-talks-begin.

  25. “Yemen Peace Talks Struggling in Switzerland Amid Disputes: Sources,” Reuters, December 17, 2015. Accessed March 18, 2016. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-idUSKBN0U00SQ20151217.

  26. Deborah Amos, “Human Rights Groups Criticize U.S. Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia,” NPR, All Things Considered, December 8, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2015/12/08/458959437/human-rights-groups-criticize-u-s-arms-sale-to-saudi-arabia.

  27. “U.S. Arming Saudi-Led Coalition Against Yemen’s Houthis,” Reuters, April 7, 2015. Accessed March 16, 2016. Available at: http://www.newsweek.com/us-arming-saudi-led-coalition-against-yemens-houthis-320287.

  28. Nahal Toosi, “White House Divided Over Saudi Airstrikes,” Politico, October 26, 2015. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/white-house-saudi-airstrikes-obama-yemen-military-attacks/.

  29. Roberta Rampton and David Alexander, “Obama Says U.S. Has Warned Iran Not to Send Weapons to Yemen,” Reuters, April 21, 2015. Accessed March 15, 2016. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-usa-navy-idUSKBN0NC24E20150422.

  30. Zachary Laub (for Council on Foreign Relations) interviewing April Longley Alley (for International Crisis Group), “Who are Yemen’s Houthis?” Council on Foreign Relations, February 25, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/yemen/yemens-houthis/p36178.

  31. Zachary Laub (for Council on Foreign Relations) interviewing April Longley Alley (for International Crisis Group), “Who are Yemen’s Houthis?” Council on Foreign Relations, February 25, 2015. Accessed July 14, 2015. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/yemen/yemens-houthis/p36178.

  32. Kareem Fahim and Saeed al-Batati, “Yemen Peace Talks End With No End to Conflict,” The New York Times, December 20, 2015. Accessed January 7, 2016. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/21/world/middleeast/yemen-peace-talks-end-with-no-end-to-conflict.html.

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