Yemen's counterterrorism quandary

Reuters

A tribesman loyal to the Shi'ite Houthi group gestures as he attends a tribal gathering to show support to the group in Amran province north of the Yemeni capital Sanaa March 13, 2014. Fighters loyal to the Shi'ite tribe, who have repeatedly fought government forces since 2004, are trying to tighten their grip on the north as Yemen moves towards a federal system that gives more power to regional authorities.

Article Highlights

  • An al Houthi offensive against the Yemeni government spells disaster for combatting AQAP.

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  • An escalation of the al Houthi conflict raises the question of Iran’s role in supporting the al Houthis

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  • The United States’ current counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen rests on continued commitment from the Yemeni government and President Hadi

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President Obama has called Yemen a “committed partner” in the fight against al Qaeda and has spoken of his intention to apply the “Yemen model” to Iraq and Syria. Such declarations ignore the forces threatening the survival of the Yemeni state, particularly the insurgency known as the al Houthi movement that is currently advancing on Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Yemen is America’s partner in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – a group that has tried to attack the U.S. repeatedly since its formation in 2009. Political unrest in 2011 in Yemen drove then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh to draw resources away from the south. AQAP seized the chance to strengthen itself and expand its safe havens dramatically. Yemeni efforts since then, with very limited support from the U.S., have reduced AQAP’s control, but the escalating conflict with the al Houthis threatens to divert key resources away from the counter-terrorism fight once again.

The al Houthis have been battling the Yemeni government since 2004. They declared a truce with the government in 2010, but never really gave up their cause. Yemen’s much-heralded political transition process after the Arab Spring revolt that drove Saleh from power failed to mollify the al Houthis, who have renewed their fight against Saleh’s successor, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in response. The al Houthi return to arms directly challenges the Yemeni state as they fight to expand their territory southward. It may even undermine the extremely fragile and incomplete political agreements that ended the Arab Spring uprising. In the worst case, it could initiate the collapse of a unitary Yemeni state. An escalation of the al Houthi conflict also raises the question of Iran’s role in supporting the al Houthis, which has notably increased over the past few years.

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Kathleen Hennessey, “In Devising a Plan in Iraq, U.S. Looks to its Yemen Model,” LA Times, June 22, 2014. Available: http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-obama-iraq-yemen-20140622-story.html#page=1

Katherine Zimmerman, “Insurgency in Yemen: the New Challenge to American Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 19, 2012. Available: http://www.criticalthreats.org/yemen/insurgency-yemen-american-counter-terrorism-strategy-march-19-2012

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