The narrowly missed terrorist attack on Christmas Day is causing the West’s attention to shift to Yemen, a country currently fighting two insurgencies led by different extremists of different ideologies but with common linkages to Iran. The Al-Qaeda portion of the forces fighting the Yemeni government has been strengthened by the release of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, making any move to send Yemeni detainees held there back to their homeland a very dangerous move.
Al-Qaeda has been building a base in Yemen for many years, facilitated by the willingness of the government to cut deals and negotiate truces with the organization in a way not dissimilar to Pakistan. President Saleh has used Arabs that fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets as soldiers in the 1994 civil war and against the extremist Shiite Houthi rebels in the north and has recruited from Salafi tribes, and many of these fighters have since received positions in the government and security forces.
Terrorism experts have suspected that prison breaks by Al-Qaeda members in Yemen are an inside job done to appease the group. For example, in February 2006, 23 members of Al-Qaeda including those involved in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole and the 2003 bombings in Riyadh escaped from a high-security prison. Those that were caught were pardoned as long as they promised not to return to jihad. In February of this year, Yemen released 170 suspected Al-Qaeda members after they also pledged not to go back to a life of terrorism.
The Arab press has reported that two Al-Qaeda camps are operating in Yemen, presumably with the government’s knowledge. One recently opened in Al-Jaza in Abyan Province housing 400 terrorists, and another open opened up in the spring, also in Abyan Province. The Yemeni government may be trying to make common cause with Sunni extremists to fight the Shiite extremists in the north.
Yemen has received increasing attention from the United States. The Defense Department is going to spend over $70 million in the next year and a half to train and arm Yemeni military and security forces, more than double the amount of previous aid provided.
The Obama Administration has looked at the possibility of sending the rest of the Yemeni nationals held at Guantanamo Bay back to their homeland, but the aforementioned issues with Yemen’s handling of Al-Qaeda makes such a move unlikely. Al-Qaeda in Yemen has been significantly strengthened as former Gitmo detainees have returned to jihad following their release and have risen to leadership positions. With nearly half of the 200 suspected terrorists held at Gitmo being Yemeni, Al-Qaeda can expect to see many of its old colleagues rejoining their ranks if such a move is made.
For example, Said Ali al-Shihri left Gitmo in 2007 and became a patient in Saudi Arabia’s terrorist rehabilitation program. Upon graduation, he went to Iran, and then became the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Abdullah al-Qarawi following a similar path, also traveling to Iran after finishing the program, where he know oversees over 100 Saudi Al-Qaeda operatives. Mohammed al-Oufi, a former Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula commander, also was released from Gitmo. Luckily, he defected later and informed the Saudis about Iran’s secret involvement with Al-Qaeda in Yemen and a plot to bomb the Saudi oil infrastructure.
The Saudis have had at least 14 former Gitmo prisoners who entered their “rehabilitation” program make it back onto their list of wanted terrorists. In early February, when a list of 85 wanted terrorists was made, 35 were last seen in Iran or were believed to currently be there. The Saudis believe that the Al-Qaeda network in Iran is supporting the group’s efforts in Yemen. One former detainee was even killed in Yemen. It is clear that released prisoners from Gitmo are an important part of Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure.
The second insurgency in Yemen is of a more immediate threat to the Yemeni government’s survival and is stretching out its resources that could otherwise be used to fight Al-Qaeda. The extremist Shiite Houthi rebels in the north have been used by the Iranian government as a way of waging a proxy war against the Yemenis in order to create a pro-Iranian Shiite enclave. The Revolutionary Guards are training Houthi rebels in Eritrea, and is shipping weapons to them through the African country’s Asab harbor. A former Houthi official has confirmed that the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force and Hezbollah are funding, training and arming them, and the Yemeni government says that Yemeni students studying in Cairo are being recruited to train in Iran before being dispatched to join the Houthi forces.
The violence has spilled over the border into Saudi Arabia and according to various reports, the Egyptians, Jordanians and even the Moroccoans are secretly come to Yemen’s rescue. The Iranians did not back down in the face of the Saudi intervention. Arms shipments to the Houthis continued, and the Saudis launched a naval blockade of the border area to prevent their arrival. The Iranians reacted by sending their own warships to the Gulf of Aden, ostensibly to fight Somali piracy, and tried to instigate riots during the hajj in Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian government is quickly escalating the conflict on the Arabian Peninsula and is devoting a large amount of resources to it. A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps official is said to have held a meeting in November with members of Hezbollah and the Houthis to prepare a new offensive along the Saudi-Yemeni border. The Iranian Army Chief of Staff is warning the Saudis that violence will spread to their country for their attacks on the Houthis, and a newspaper run by the Revolutionary Guards predicts that the Saudi government will fall if they don’t retreat. It’s also been reported that Ayatollah Khamenei has asked the Revolutionary Guards to draw up a plan to seize the Yemeni and Saudi embassies in Tehran. The Basiji militia actually already attacked the Yemeni embassy on November 24.
The Iranians even named a street in Tehran after Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the former leader of the extremist Shiites in Yemen. The Yemenis retaliated by naming a street called Iran Boulevard to Neda Soltan Street, in honor of the young female protestor whose brutal death at the hands of the Iranian security forces this summer was videotaped and seen around the world.
The attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day brought some much-needed attention to Yemen. Although the government has a mixed record on fighting terrorism and is far from democratic, it is trying to fight back a bold Iranian offensive in the region on one hand, and faces a threat from Al-Qaeda on the other. If the U.S. does not become sufficiently engaged in the fight, the Yemeni government will embrace the former in order to fight off the latter. The U.S. must make clear that it will give Yemen all the help in fighting both enemies as long as it purges its ranks of sympathizers and does not try to make a deal with the devil.