In recent months Al Qaeda and Da’esh terrorists have made a comeback in Yemen, adding further woe to a country where 3 million people have been displaced in an ongoing civil war. Yemen is one of the world’s most water insecure states.
In a recent statement, UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani described the development as “deeply worrying”.
The conflict pits the internationally recognized government of Yemen against a Houthi rebellion backed by Iran. The government of Yemen has long enjoyed the support of a Saudi-led international coalition. However, this narrative has obscured the nested conflict within that conflict.
Al Qaeda and Da’esh have created neo-tribal natal states in the South of Yemen and a recent uptick in violence in the region suggests they are on the march. This is a conflict between Da’esh and Al Qaeda for control of of the region and is just as vital to U.S. national interest.
Indeed, disturbing evidence posted on social media appears to show Al-Qaeda forces fighting alongside government forces in a battle with another militia in Yemen’s troubled South.
The U.S. has an immediate and short-term security interest in defeating terrorists in Yemen and ensuring they do not gain hold with any national government.
The shifting sands of Yemen’s Civil War are complex. Recently Al Qaeda and Da’esh forces have begun their own war against each other (according to the Washington Post). The Russian Federation is also taking a new look at playing additional roles in a region of Yemen in which it held significant influence during the Cold War.
Even so the policy of aiding one group against the other would be dangerous short-term mindset that will have a long-term impact. If the accusations prove true, it may prove to be déjà vu all over again for U.S. counter-terrorism policy in Yemen.
Yemen, a state with difficult terrain, strong tribal ties and a weak central government, has long been a textbook territory for Al Qaeda terrorists to launch attacks and develop networks.
From Yemen, Al Qaeda plotted an attack on Christmas 2009 that sought to blow-up a civilian airliner over a U.S. city. It was also the site of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 which left 17 dead (and the thwarted attack on the U.S.S Sullivan).
Earlier this year a U.S. drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Jamal Abu Abed Al Rahman Al Badawi –one of the apparent masterminds of the attack on the USS Cole. How did Badawi manage to stay on the run for 19 years?
In fact. he didn’t. He escaped from Yemeni government custody — twice. Once in 2004 and again in 2006 when he was one of 23 people including 12 Al Qaeda members who escaped in an infamous jailbreak that involved a complex tunnelling effort. He surrendered in 2007 only to be released shortly after in amnesty with Al Qaeda members who promised to lay down their arms – so much for that policy.
Badawi was just one example of how U.S. efforts to halt Al Qaeda were often hindered by the reticence of Yemen’s leaders. However, the government of long-time Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown in 2012 after months of street protests.
The new international government of Yemen maybe wholly committed to fighting the Houthis but, must be equally committed to other counter-terrorism efforts and break with the country’s past experiences.