While fighting in Libya has been dominating the news, Yemen, a Middle Eastern country extremely critical to American strategic interests, is emerging as the next domino in the wave of protests engulfing the region. Unfortunately, the prospect of Yemen’s collapse carries devastating implications for world security, as the country stands a great likelihood of becoming a lawless incubator of terrorism.
The poorest and most unstable of all Middle Eastern countries, Yemen occupies a strategic position in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, straddling one side of the 20-mile wide Mandab Strait, through which all shipping from the Indian Ocean must go to reach the Suez Canal. While Yemen borders a vital shipping lane, equally important for world commerce are the oil fields located in adjacent Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, Yemen is also a well-known haven for al Qaeda.
For these strategically important reasons, the White House has been paying close attention to Yemen’s inner turmoil over the last few weeks. A tribal society like Afghanistan, Yemen has always had a weak central government. Widespread protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster are making that government even weaker. Six of the country’s 18 provinces, it is reported, are no longer even under the government’s control.
And it is this unravelling of Yemen that has, according to the New York Times, caused the Obama administration to withdraw its previous support for Saleh, and to begin negotiating the president’s departure after 32 years of rule. The final straw that stirred the White House to action was the killing of more than 50 anti-government protesters on March 18 by Saleh’s security forces.
However, the White House is deceiving itself if it believes that Saleh’s departure, like Mubarak’s in Egypt, will improve an increasingly chaotic situation. Problems that existed before the current unrest are becoming worse, and new ones are sure to develop. In Yemen, the West may soon be faced with another Somalia or Afghanistan, countries with weak or no central governments, in whose chaotic environments anti-Western terrorist organizations thrive.
“Groups of various stripes – Al Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements and secessionists – are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,” a Yemeni official told the Times.
Before the outbreak of the anti-Saleh unrest, Yemen’s government had been battling internal enemies on three fronts with different degrees of success. Federal security forces had been hunting al Qaeda terrorists with American help. But with the recent breakdown in security and splits in the Yemeni army, the terrorist situation has worsened. Al Qaeda is reported to have captured a town in South Yemen’s Abyan province, where it is strongest and where it receives tribal support. With the government’s collapse, al Qaeda’s cancerous growth and new attacks are assured.
Besides turning Yemen into a terrorist base for Islamic extremists like North Waziristan, a stronger al Qaeda presence in Yemen represents another disturbing danger for American and Western interests. Even before the current unrest, the terrorist organization had called upon its fighters in Yemen to close the strategic Mandab Strait.
Such a development is not beyond the realm of possibility. In 2002, the French tanker Limburg was rammed by a small suicide boat in Yemeni waters that saw one sailor killed and 90,000 barrels of oil pour into the sea in an attack similar to the one on the USS Cole in Aden, a Yemeni port, in 2000. This single suicide attack on the Limburg led to a “short-term collapse” in shipping traffic in the Gulf of Aden. The effect on world shipping of several such attacks in the narrow Mandab Strait can only be imagined.