Yemen Country Brief
Yemen is an emerging front in the war against al Qaeda, but our efforts to address the threat are complicated by the country’s internal conflicts. In February 2012, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down after 33 years in power. The new government is nonetheless engaged in clashes with multiple domestic groups and it is also fighting a war against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
AQAP has become the al Qaeda franchise most interested in striking the U.S.1 and an important source of financial support for al Qaeda in Pakistan.2 U.S. and other intelligence services thwarted sophisticated AQAP attempts to bomb U.S.-bound airplanes in 2009,3 2010,4 and 2012.5 Defeating AQAP is America’s primary counterterrorism priority for the region.
- AQAP is attempting to create a territorial safe haven in Yemen.6
- In the last few years, AQAP’s ranks have more than doubled,7 and the group has temporarily held a number of urban areas.8
- AQAP has been successful because it is taking advantage of broad, popular grievances against Yemen’s government.9
American Efforts Against AQAP
The U.S. is currently pursuing a multi-front campaign against AQAP.
Working with Yemenis:
- The U.S. military is training and equipping Yemen’s security forces in order to build their capacity to combat terrorism and insurgency, as well as to promote good governance.10
- President Obama in May 2012 signed an Executive Order that allows the Treasury Department to act against those who “threaten the peace, security or stability of Yemen.” This order allows the U.S. government to, among other actions, block financial transactions to groups that wish to undermine the government in Sana’a.11
Working with the Saudis:
The U.S. is working closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to fight AQAP.
- AQAP’s most recent attempted attack, using a sophisticated underwear bomb, was thwarted in May of 2012 when the bomber turned out to be a Saudi intelligence asset.12 He reportedly provided U.S. and Saudi security services with both his explosives and the locations of multiple AQAP leaders.13
- In 2010, a tip-off from Saudi intelligence stopped an attack on a U.S.-bound cargo plane. An AQAP bombmaker hid explosives inside a toner cartridge within a larger package.14
President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. is taking “direct action” against AQAP.15 Press reports indicate that the U.S. is actively using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)—drones—to strike AQAP targets. Our unilateral efforts inside the country date back to at least 2002, when a UAV struck Salim al-Harethi, a major player in the 2000 USS Cole attack.16
- The U.S. has reportedly used drones to strike AQAP leaders such as American-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and the USS Cole attack mastermind Fahd al-Quso.17
- The State Department is conducting a program to counter al Qaeda recruitment efforts in Yemeni tribal websites.18
Larger Unrest in Yemen
Yemen has a long history of violent unrest between tribal groups and the central government. While U.S. policy remains focused on defeating AQAP and facilitating stability in the country, the “Arab Spring” has reignited old grievances that have strained the Yemeni military and the government.19
- Southern tribes have rallied against AQAP, but they remain anti-government.20
- In the north, the Iran-backed al-Houthis continue to fight the central government in a separate rebellion.
- In September 2012, anti-American protesters demonstrated in front of the U.S. embassy in reaction to an incendiary anti-Muslim film. In October 2012, a Yemeni security guard for the U.S. embassy was shot and killed in an apparent AQAP attack.21
Regardless of U.S. actions, Yemen will remain a fragile state for years to come.